When the Chess Game Is Over, the King and the Pawn Go Back in the Same Box

Italian Proverb? John Boys? Thomas Adams? John Spencer? Thomas-Simon Gueullette? Omar Khayyam? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Some people live lives of opulence and celebrity while others remain mired in poverty and anonymity. On a chessboard there is a king and a queen, but there are also eight lowly pawns. A metaphorical adage highlights the uniform fate of all chess pieces and humans:

At the end of the game the king and the pawn go into the same box.

Chess pieces undergo a form of reincarnation when a new match begins. Humans may experience reincarnation, oblivion, judgment day, hades, paradise or some other continuation. Would you please help me to find a citation for the adage above?

Quote Investigator: The earliest published match located by QI occurred in a 1629 collection of writings by John Boys who was the Dean of Canterbury in England. The non-standard spelling in the following passage is from the original text. Boldface added to excepts by QI: 1

As in Chesse-play, so long as the game is in playing, all the men stand in their order, and are respected according to their place; first, the King; then, the Queene; then, the Bishops; after them, the Knights; and last of all, the common Souldier: but when once the game is ended, and the table taken away, then all are confusedly tumbled into a bag, and happily the King is lowest, and the pawne vpmost. Euen so is it with vs in this life; the world is a huge theater or stage, wherein some play the parts of Kings; other, of Bishops; some, Lords; many, Knights; other, Yeomen: but when our Lord shall come with his Angels to iudge the world; all are alike.

Further below an interesting precursor verse from Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam is presented. The translation into English appeared in the 19th century, but the source material may have been circulating in the 11th century. The complete provenance of the verse is uncertain.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1633 English clergyman Thomas Adams published a religious commentary which included a version of the saying together with a prefatory discussion about mortality suggesting that the bodies of the dead are difficult to distinguish: 2

Menippus meeting Mercury in the Elisian fields, would needs know of him, which among all the ghosts was Philip that great King of Macedon. Mercury answers; He is Philip, that hath the hairelesse scalpe: Minippus replies, why they have all bald heads. Mercur. Then he with the flat nose. Menip. they all have flat noses. Merc. Then he with the hollow eyes. Menip. they all have hollow eyes: all have naked ribbes, disjoynted members: all are carcases. Mercur. Then Menippus, in death there is no difference betwixt the King and the beggar.

Mors dominos servis, & sceptra ligonibus aequat:
Dissimiles simili conditione ligans;

Men upon earth, as in the game at Chesse, supply different places: one is a King, another a Queene, another a Bishop, another a Knight, another a Pawne. But when the game is done, and they are shuffled into one bag; all are alike.

In 1658 John Spencer published “A Store-house of Similies, Sentences, Allegories, Apophthegms, Adagies, Apologues, Divine, Morall, Politicall” which included text that was very similar to the text above. 3

In 1740 Thomas-Simon Gueullette who was best known for writing fairy tales published the book “Chinese Tales or The Wonderful Adventures of the Mandarin Fum-Hoam Related By Himself” which included a version of the saying: 4

The King, with whom I had this Discourse, was so affected with the Truth of it, that, You are in the right, said he to me; and ’tis with very great Justice that one of our Poets has elegantly compar’d all kind of Men to the Pieces, wherewith we play at Chess: some act the Kings, the Queens, the Knights, the Fools, and simple Pawns.

There is a vast Difference between them, while they are in Motion; but when once the Game is over, and the Chess-board shut, they are thrown promiscuously together into the same Box, without any manner of Distinction. Death does the very same thing: Kings, Emperors, Merchants, Slaves, Warriors, Men of the Robe, and of the Revenue, all then become equal; and there is nothing but our good Deeds and Charity towards our Neighbours, that will give us one Day a Superiority above others.

In 1859 Edward FitzGerald published a translation of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam into English. The forty-ninth verse was: 5

’Tis all a Chequer-board of Nights and Days
Where Destiny with Men for Pieces plays:
Hither and thither moves, and mates, and slays,
And one by one back in the Closet lays.

In 1894 the periodical “Great Thoughts from Master Minds” printed an instance attributed to “Adams” which was probably a reference to English clergyman Thomas Adams who died in 1653: 6

Men upon earth, as in the game of chess, supply different places; one is a king, another a queen, another a bishop, another a pawn; but when the game is done, and they are shuffled into one bag, into the grave, they are all alike. ADAMS.

In 1902 “Proverb Lore: Many Sayings, Wise or Otherwise, on Many Subjects, Gleaned from Many Sources” by F. Edward Hulme included the following: 7

. . . the chess-player’s board suggests the moral, “At the end of the game the king and the pawn go into the same bag,” one lot befalls all.

In 1942 journalist H. L. Mencken included an instance in his monumental reference “A New Dictionary of Quotations on Historical Principles from Ancient and Modern Sources”: 8

After the game the king and the pawn go into the same box. ITALIAN PROVERB

In conclusion, the earliest published instance of this metaphorical adage in English located by QI appeared in the writings of John Boys in 1629. John Boys had died a few years before in 1625. It is possible that the adage was already in circulation. The citation in Edward FitzGerald’s 19th century translation of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam suggests that the notion may have been circulating in earlier centuries.

Image Notes: Illustration of twelve chess pieces from OpenClipart-Vectors at Pixabay.

(Great thanks to quotation expert Nigel Rees whose inquiry printed in his newsletter of October 2011 led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Thanks to J. S. Linfoot who responded to Rees with the citation for the verse in the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. Thanks to librarian researcher Stephen Goranson who accessed the 1633 citation.)


  1. 1629, Title: The Workes of Iohn Boys: Doctor in Diuinitie and Deane of Canterburie, Author: John Boys (1571-1625), Section: The first Sunday after the Epiphanie, Quote Page 129, Imprinted for W. Ashley, London (HathiTrust Full View) link
  2. 1633, Title: A commentary or, exposition vpon the diuine second epistle generall, written by the blessed apostle St. Peter, Author: Thomas Adams (1612-1653), Quote Page 276 and 277, Publication info: Printed by Richard Badger (and Felix Kyngston) for Iacob Bloome, London. (Early English Books Online EEBO)
  3. 1658, Title: Kaina kai palaia Things new and old, or, A store-house of similies, sentences, allegories, apophthegms, adagies, apologues, divine, morall, politicall, &c.: with their severall applications / collected and observed from the writings and sayings of the learned in all ages to this present by John Spencer, Publisher: Printed by W. Wilson and J. Streater of London, for John Spencer. (Early English Books Online EEBO) link
  4. 1740, Chinese Tales or The Wonderful Adventures of the Mandarin Fum-Hoam Related By Himself, To Divert The Sultana, Upon the Celebration of Her Nuptials, Written in French by M. Gueulette (Thomas-Simon Gueullette), Translated by The Rev. Mr. Stackhouse, Second Edition, Chapter: The Fortieth Evening: The farther Continuation of the Adventures of the Dervise Assirkan, Quote Page 192, Printed for J. Osborn, London. (HathiTrust Full View) link
  5. 1859, Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám: The Astronomer-Poet of Persia, Translated into English Verse by Edward FitzGerald, Verse 49, Quote Page 11, (Facsimile Edition), Bernard Quaritch, London. (HathiTrust Full View) link
  6. 1894 Great Thoughts from Master Minds, Volume 21, Earthly Distinctions, Quote Page 104, Column 1, A. W. Hall, London, (HathiTrust Full View) link
  7. 1902, Proverb Lore: Many Sayings, Wise or Otherwise, on Many Subjects, Gleaned from Many Sources by F. Edward Hulme, Chapter 5, Quote Page 145, Elliot Stock, London. (HathiTrust Full View) link
  8. 1942, A New Dictionary of Quotations on Historical Principles from Ancient and Modern Sources, Selected and Edited by H. L. Mencken (Henry Louis Mencken), Topic: Death, Quote Page 266, Column 2, Alfred A. Knopf. New York. (Verified on paper)