“It was the narcotic of generalship. It was the essence of war.” Kurt Vonnegut’s short story, “All the King’s Horses”

I just finished this great little short story by Kurt Vonnegut. An American military plane, transporting a Colonel Kelly and his family and various other personnel, is blown off course and crash lands “somewhere in Asia” where the pilot and passengers (sixteen people in all – a number with unfortunate consequences) are taken prisoner by a local communist leader, Pi Ying. I was wondering where the story would go, and then was shocked to discover that Pi Ying plans to force the American Colonel to contest a game of chess with him, using the sixteen prisoners as live chess pieces! Of course, at stake in the game are the lives of the prisoners.

Now my interest was piqued, as I have spent more than 20 years of my life as a regular participant in chess tournaments, mostly in Indiana, but also in many other locations around the country and even once in Bermuda. I “retired” in 2005, but still follow news of the game via several excellent chess blogs and news websites. So, I was looking forward to finding out how the game was described and depicted.

Also, in his mental preparation for the game, Colonel Kelly finds a strange calm overtaking him, just as it habitually did in real battle. This is where the quotation in the title of the post comes from. This calm detachment is what allows him – and other military leaders – to function effectively amid the “insanity” of war. This called to mind some of my Civil War reading of this year, like the Stonewall Jackson biography, Killer Angels, and The Red Badge of Courage. Voonegut describes Kelly as recognizing “the eerie calm – an old wartime friend- that left only the cold machinery of his wits and senses alive.” (this is the ‘narcotic of generalship’ in the quotation above). A probably overlong review follows, but I’d suggest investing 20 minutes in reading this story before I “ruin it” for you…

Anyway, back to the game *Spoiler Alert* (and *Nerd Alert!*): After some discussion on who will be the king’s pawn (accurately described as one of the more hazardous outposts) the game begins with Kelly’s wife taking the role of queen and his twin sons as the white knights. Our hero begins the game in normal fashion with “pawn to king four” (e4 in modern chess notation) and his captor replies with pawn to queen four, putting the pawns into conflict with each other. (this opening is known today as the Scandinavian Defense, or in some quarters the “Center Counter Game.” It’s a viable reply to pawn to king four, but not the most popular one today. Kelly can either take the black pawn or push forward with his king’s pawn OR simply defend the pawn, which he is described as doing by pushing a pawn up one square. This latter is what he does, although only two moves accomplish this: 2. d3 or 2. f3, both of which are NEVER played at the serious level – even though Kelly has described himself earlier in the story as ‘above average.’

Pi Ying, bloodthirsty for action decides to trade pawns and captures Kelly’s king pawn (captured “live” pieces are immediately taken away and shot). The game goes on and Kelly finds himself in a losing position, realizing the only way to divert his opponent’s forthcoming coup de grace is to sacrifice one of his own pieces – in this case a knight i.e., one of his twin sons. Realizing that NOT doing so will result in all of their deaths, he proceeds with the plan. Pi Ying laughs and taunts Kelly for his oversight, while Kelly tries to “sell it” with some forehead-slapping type histrionics: “Oh, my God! What have I done?” etc. Pi Ying accepts the sacrifice, at which point his consort, disgusted by Ying’s sadism, stabs him to death. At this point, Ying’s advisor, a Russian Major Barzov (unaware of the consequences of Ying’s having accepted the sacrifice) takes the reins of the game and is quickly defeated.

So, on the chess front, I’d have to say the story isn’t too accurate. No good player would play as Kelly does, and Ying once advises a soldier chosen to be a bishop that it is worth “a knight and a pawn.” Not so. A bishop IS worth slightly more than a knight, but by no means a whole pawn’s worth. Vonnegut also says that “a game of chess can very rarely be won – any more than a battle can be won – without sacrifices.” This isn’t quite true either. I knew many players who “made a living” by only not making serious mistakes and letting their opponents simply “beat themselves.” Perhaps it is true, however, in games between strong players of similar strength.

The theme of the story is also not unique (do you suppose J.K. Rowling was familiar with this story when she describes a live game of Wizard’s Chess in one of the Harry Potter books? Wasn’t it Ron Weasley who says, “You have to sacrifice me, Harry! It’s the only way!”) I also remember a tv show or movie with a similar theme: commandant of a POW camp plays the leader of the prisoners, etc. There was even a great TRUE story in an issue of Chess Life magazine (Yes, there really is a magazine with that name!) about a chess playing relationship of an American POW in the Pacific theater and his chess-playing Japanese commandant. I’ll do some research and try to find that and maybe update later.

Below: Starting position of the Scandinavian Defense: