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How to Read and Write Chess Notation

Posted by Vjekoslav Nemec on

What is Chess Notation?

Chess notation is the term that refers to a system of recording chess moves of a chess game.

Chess notation represents the most practical, most clear and most concise tool with the help of which the scores of the chess games are transmitted.

More vividly said, chess notation is the language of a chess player.

The Importance of Chess Notation

The importance of chess notation in modern day chess can't be overemphasized.

Basic familiarity with the rules of chess notation is a must for a wide variety of chess players.

Whether you are a strong Grandmaster that makes a living out of chess, or a weekend hobby player, there is very high probability that your chess path will require knowledge of chess notation sooner or later during your career.

For instance, knowledge of chess notation is mandatory for any of the following actions:

  • Playing in official FIDE events

In any official FIDE event played under longer time control (more than 25 minutes/half an hour per player), players are obliged to write their moves down. From the official Fide Rulebook, Article 8, Paragraph 8.1:

“In the course of play each player is required to record his own moves and those of his opponent in the correct manner, move after move, as clearly and legibly as possible, in the algebraic notation (See Appendix C), on the scoresheet prescribed for the competition.“

Here is an example tournament scoresheet of a chess game I played:

It should be pretty obvious from the scoresheet that participation in official FIDE events is impossible without the knowledge of chess notation.

It is also pretty obvious from the scoresheet that this wasn't one of my best games.

  • Following chess tournaments

 The global technological advance in the last couple of decades has done wonders for chess kibitzers all over the world.

It is by no means an exaggeration to say that the invention of the electronic chess board and the ascend of Internet has been as significant for chess as the invention of the television set for conventional sports like football or basketball.

Please consider the following:

  • In the past, in order to follow a tournament live, you had to be literally present in the playing hall. For big TV houses, chess was never interesting (read: not profitable) enough to accommodate worthy broadcasts (with a few exceptions such as Fischer-Spassky 1972 match)
  • Even if you didn't follow the games live, you had to wait quite some time for the tournament report to be published. Nowadays, with the globalization, the flow of information is much faster.

Today it is no problem for any self-respectable tournament manager to arrange live transmission on the moves and Internet broadcast with computer analysis and commentary of the games being played.

There is a number of Internet sites devoted purely to the transmission of the chess games. An example of the www.chessbomb.com is given on the picture below:

chessbomb using chess notation

The right part of the screen shows chess notation of the game moves, and lower left of the engine analysis.

It is obvious that knowledge of chess notation is essential for competently following chess events throughout the world.

  • Reading chess literature

Reading chess books is a very reliable way of improving your chess. Apart from that, chess magazines and blogs like ours are also great sources that help you gather new information and follow hot stuff from the chess world.

However, considering that chess literature almost always includes game scores, game analysis and game commentary, only someone well versed in chess notation can fully enjoy reading it.

The usage of the chess notation in the book excerpt above is obvious.

Therefore, it is safe to say that chess notation is omnipresent in the chess world.

Throughout history, numerous variations of chess notation were developed.

In the scope of this article we will cover two most relevant ones – algebraic and descriptive chess notation.

Learn Algebraic Chess Notation

Algebraic chess notation, also known as the modern chess notation, has nowadays almost completely supplanted the older, descriptive chess notation. As previously mentioned, FIDE also requires the participants of official FIDE events to record their games using algebraic notation (see the official Fide Rulebook).

Introduced by Mr. Philip Stamma in the 18th century, algebraic chess notation is based on the geometrical characteristics of the chess board.

In the algebraic chess notation, every single square of the chessboard is represented in the chosen coordinate system.

The chessboard is divided into eight files and eight ranks. Letters from a-h are assigned to files (columns) and numbers from 1-8 to each single rank (rows).

chessboard used for algebraic chess notation

Stamma has created the coordinate system in which every square is uniquely defined.

Or, as my math teacher used to say, every square has its name and its surname.

After defining the board, defining the pieces is the next step. A unique letter is assigned to every single piece, with the exception of pawns.

  • K – King
  • Q – Queen
  • R - Rook
  • N – Knight
  • B – Bishop

 The letter above are internationally recognized. However, almost every language has its own set of letters and nothing is really standardized. For instance, on my scoresheet given above, I have used the letter S for the knight (the Croatian translation of the word “knight“ is “skakač“, hence it's origin).

Now, having the whole system of algebraic notation described, everything is set for its application.

Algebraic chess notation combines the letters assigned to the pieces with the coordinate system of the board in order to describe the movement of the pieces.

To illustrate the principle, let's look at a couple of chess positions:

example 1

In the given position, White has moved his pawn in front of the king for two squares. Having in mind the coordinate system of the board, we can identify that the pawn has ended up on the square e4. Since there is no specific letter for the pawn in the algebraic notation, we can write the following:

1 e4

A chess player would read this as follows: “On the first move, White has moved his pawn to the square e4.”

When moves are written in the fashion above, it is also known as the short form of the algebraic notation, because only the square on which a pawn ends it journey is given, and the starting point is completely disregarded.

More experienced player usually knows where the piece has been prior to making a move, but for a novice it can sometimes be confusing. Fortunately, this problems is easily solved by using the long form of the algebraic notation:

1 e2-e4

“On the first move, White has moved his pawn from the square e2 to the square e4.”

Let us look at another example:

chess notation example 2

In the algebraic notation, the correct expression describing the knight movement in the diagram above is as follows:

5 Nge2

Here we see one of the drawbacks of the short notation. Since the square e2 is available to both White knights, we must include the starting square of the knight in order to make it clear which knight makes the movement.

Long notation doesn't suffer from similar problems:

5 Ng1 – Ne2

Rooks have the same problems as knights. In the diagram above, the square a5 was available to the both White rooks. Therefore, the correct expression in the short form is:

1 R7a5

Indicating that the rook located on the seventh rank made the move.

Long form is once again more intuitive:

1 Ra7 – Ra5

Understanding Descriptive Chess Notation

Descriptive chess notation is an older form of chess notation which was actively used until 1980s.

Nowadays, it has been replaced by the algebraic chess notation and is no longer officially recognized by the FIDE.

However, a great deal of older chess literature is written using descriptive notation. Among this literature there are certain books that are considered as a must read for any serious chess player.

And although part of the literature WAS rewritten using the algebraic notation, knowledge of descriptive chess notation can be really helpful for any developing chess player.

Descriptive notation also uses the division of the board in the coordinate system. However, the key difference is that, mathematically speaking, this coordinate system is relative. Or more bluntly said, there are two different notations, one for player playing the White pieces, and the other for player playing the Black pieces.

The division of the board in accordance to descriptive notation is demonstrated on the diagram below.

what is descriptive chess notation

The division of the ranks is also labeled with the numbers ranging from 1 to 8. However,  the files are labeled after the piece that finds itself on the first rank of the belonging rank.

Therefore, the square e4 in the algebraic notation now becomes K4 from White's perspective, because it is located on the same file where White's king originally stands.

The same square from Black's perspective becomes K5.

Having defined notation for the board, we can now define notation for the pieces as well:

  • K – King
  • Q – Queen
  • R - Rook
  • Kt – Knight
  • B – Bishop
  • P – Pawn

In order to give the reader better insight of the principles of descriptive notation, we will apply it on same examples we used for the algebraic notations.

dcn example 2

The move 1 e4 is written using descriptive notation as follows:

1 PK4

Or, in the long form:

1 PK2 – PK4

This doesn't sound terribly complicated yet. However, imagine if Black were to move his pawn to e5 (1…e5). Using descriptive notation, it would be written in the short form as:

1 … P-K4

Or, in the long form, as:

1… PK2-PK4.

The second example:

dcn example 2

This is where things get even more confusing.

“Translation“ of the knight move 5 Nge2 in descriptive notation would be:

5 KKt-K2

Since we have to specify which knight moves, we have to add an extra K in front of Kt in order to make it clear that we are referring to the king's knight. We could have also written:

5 Kt(1)-K2

Where the number in the bracket refers to the number of the rank from which the piece starts it's movement.

The need for the latter principle becomes apparent if we examine the diagram below:

dcn example 3

The correct notation of the move 1 R7a5 in descriptive notation would be:

1 R(7)-QR5

The main drawback of descriptive notation is apparent. Having to constantly switch perspectives makes it much more complicated to record the game moves and follow the game.

 Algebraic notation is therefore much more practical overall.

Special Moves in Chess Notation

So far we have only covered the basic movement of the pieces. However, chess notation also contains symbols for special moves like castling or capturing opponent's piece. These symbols are universal for both algebraic and descriptive notation. Their overview is given below:

Short castling

The symbol for short castling in chess notation is as follows: 0-0

Long castling

The symbol for long castling in chess notation is as follows: 0-0-0

Capture

The symbol for capture in chess notation is: x.

For instance, in the diagram below, the correct notation of White e-pawn capturing Black's d-pawn would be:

chess notation for capture

2 exd5

Check

The symbol for check in chess notation is: +

We usually write this symbol on the end of the move.

For instance, in the diagram below, the correct notation of White's light squared bishop giving check is:

check chess notation

3 Bb5+

Mate

The symbol for mate in chess notation is: ++

Similarly, as with a check symbol, we usually write this symbol at the end of the move.

The only difference is that here it indicates the end of the game as well J

An example of this symbol can be seen in the previous article about the Scholar's mate.

Promotion/Underpromotion

The correct notation for the pawn promotion is adding the letter symbol for the piece at the end of the move.

For instance, in the diagram below, White promotes his pawn on e7 on his next move:

pawn promotion chess notation

pawn promotion notation 2

If the pawn promotes to a queen, the correct notation of the move is:

1 e8Q

Naturally, the promotion to another piece is noted with the corresponding piece symbol (N for knight, B for bishop, etc.)

It is possible for a move to be a promotion and a check at the same time.

pawn promotion notation when also putting in check

In such a case, check symbol again comes on the end. The correct notation is:

1 e8Q+

Conclusion

This article presented a detailed overview of the principles of chess notation. Hopefully, after reading it the reader will be able use chess notation and record his own games.

…Unless our reader has the handwriting of a doctor, then there is no point in setting any rules whatsoever.

korchnoi notation

This scoresheet of the chess hall of famer Viktor Korchnoi is the best example.

On the other hand, you can always say to the arbiter that you are using the well known Korchnoi notation.

(Learn More About Beginner Chess Rules, Strategies, and Tricks In Our Complete Beginners Guide to Chess) 


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