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Chess Notation

Today, the algebraic system of Chess notation is in universal use as the sole recognized system of Chess notation by the Chess federations of all countries.

Be that as it may, many Chess players in the English-speaking world are still more familiar with the descriptive Chess notation. And both the descriptive Chess notation and the algebraic Chess notation have undergone changes or been used with variations over the years. Some of these variations will be discussed here.

English Descriptive Notation

The system of English descriptive notation is illustrated by the following diagram:

The ranks are designated by letters representing the piece on those ranks in the initial array. The two Rooks, Knights, and Bishops are distinguished by whether they are on the King's side of the board or the Queen's side, by being prefixed with Q or K; this prefix is normally omitted, and included only when it is required to prevent ambiguity.

The Knight had originally been designated by Kt instead of N; S, from the German Springer, had alternatively been proposed as a single-letter replacement for Kt in English.

The files are numbered from 1 to 8. The numbers count from the back row of the board from the viewpoint of the player whose move is recorded.

A move is normally noted by giving the letter for the piece moved, a dash, the letter for the file to which it is moved, and the number of the rank to which it is moved.

Captures are noted as the piece moved, an X - usually a multiplication sign, but alternatively a lower-case X, and the piece captured.

King's side Castling is noted by O-O, and Queen's side castling by O-O-O.

In the early days of descriptive notation, because it was patterned after how moves were described in complete sentences, Pawn moves were sometimes noted differently. Thus, the initial move P-K4 might be noted as KP2, indicating that the King's Pawn is moved two steps forward. If that Pawn is later advanced another step, instead of noting the move as P-K5, it was noted as KP1: King's Pawn one step.

Occasionally, the normal notation for a move would be ambiguous, and so additional information is added to that notation.

Thus, in a situation where one piece can capture two other pieces of the same kind, the piece captured is further identified; where two pieces of the same kind can move to the same square, the piece moved is further identified.

Today, the practice is to add a slash (/), also called a virgule, followed by the square the piece was on. Before, the practice was to identify a Rook, Knight, or Bishop as the King's or Queen's piece, or to identify a Pawn by the file it came from, as, for example, a King's Bishop's Pawn.

It is because this requires keeping track of how a piece moved during a game that the modern practice, although less compact, was adopted as an improvement.

Other National Descriptive Notations

While the English-speaking countries were the last to abandon descriptive notation, that was the original form of Chess notation used in all countries. Chess moves were originally described in complete sentences, as noted above, but in several countries a shortened descriptive notation was used before algebraic notation took over.

The names of the pieces in Spanish, French, and Italian and their one-letter abbreviations, are:

Pawn     P Peon       P Pion        P Pedina
King     R Rey        R Roi         R Re
Queen    D Dama       D Dame        D Donna
Bishop   A Alfil      F Fou         A Alfiere
Knight   C Caballo    C Cavalier    C Cavallo
Rook     T Torre      T Tour        T Torre

In Spanish, French, and Italian because of the order of words in those languages, when the letter R or D is used to distinguish between a King's-side and a Queen's-side piece piece, it is suffixed rather than prefixed to the letter for a Rook, Knight, or Bishop. Also, in both of these forms of descriptive notation, the number of the rank precedes the letter for the file.

In Spanish descriptive notation, the letter for the piece being moved is next to the designation of the square it is being moved to, without a dash as used in English descriptive notation. The fact that the number for the file comes first in the designation of a square makes it easier to interpret a move in Spanish descriptive notation without ambiguity.

In the first version of French descriptive notation which I encountered, there is a period between the piece moved and the destination square. Examples of French descriptive notation that I have found in French chess books, however, differ; there may be a period after the letter representing the piece moved or not, thus, it seems to indicate an abbreviation; but there can be spaces both before and after the number of the rank to which the piece is moved, or just a space before that number.

Note that as the initial letters of the names of the pieces in Italian are the same as in Spanish, Italian descriptive notation is essentially identical to Spanish descriptive notation.

As an example of these forms of notation, here are the moves of the Ruy Lopez in English, Spanish, and French descriptive notation:

English            Spanish            French
Descriptive        Descriptive        Descriptive

P-K4    P-K4       P4R     P4R        P 4R    P 4R
N-KB3   N-QB3      C3AR    C3AD       C 3FR   C 3FD
B-N5               A5C                F 5C

At least in Spanish descriptive notation, Castling and captures are noted in the same basic fashion as in English descriptive notation.

When these forms of notation were in use, ambiguities were resolved by indicating the original file of the piece moved or captured rather than the square moved from or moved to.

Algebraic Notation

The algebraic system of notation is the one currently in universal use. Its basis is:

Here, the numbering of the ranks of the board is always from White's perspective, whether a move by White or Black is being recorded. The files are simply noted by consecutive letters of the alphabet, without attempting to relate their designations to the pieces initially stationed upon them.

Letters designating the pieces are followed by the name of the destination square. For a Pawn move, no letter is used.

Captures are denoted with an x, but the destination square follows the x instead of the type of piece captured.

Thus, algebraic notation looks like this:

English            English
Descriptive        Algebraic

P-K4    P-K4       e4      e5
N-KB3   N-QB3      Nf3     Nc6
B-N5               Bb5

Algebraic notation is not fully uniform, from one country to the next, as different languages have different names for the pieces. This has been remedied with figurine algebraic notation, in which the same types as would be used to represent the White pieces in a Chess diagram, but in a smaller size, replace the letters naming the piece moved.

Just as a table of the names of the pieces in different languages was useful when examining descriptive notation, then, one is also useful in the case of algebraic notation, but a more extensive one:

Spanish    German        French        Hungarian

P Peon     B Bauer       P Pion        G Gyalog
R Rey      K König       R Roi         K Király
D Dama     D Dame        D Dame        V Vezér
A Alfil    L Läufer      F Fou         F Futár
C Caballo  S Springer    C Cavalier    H Huszár
T Torre    T Turm        T Tour        B Bástya


Italian    Swedish       English       Dutch    

P Pedina   B Bonde       P Pawn          Pion
R Re       K Konnung     K King        K Konig
D Donna    D Dam         Q Queen       D Dame (Konigin)
A Alfiere  L Löpare      B Bishop      R Raadsheer
C Cavallo  S Springare   N Knight      P Paard
T Torre    T Torn        R Rook        T Tor (Kasteel)

Some Attempts at Improved Descriptive Notations

In one English translation of a book of chess openings by Jaenisch, an unconventional Chess notations was used.

In one of them, an attempt was made to make descriptive Chess notation as compact as algebraic Chess notation by using different letters for King's side and Queen's side pieces, and different letters for each Pawn, as follows:

Pawns:   c m p q k b n r
Pieces:  C M P Q K B N R

Thus, the Queen's Rook was designated by C, which people could remember as standing for "Castle", and the Queen's Rook's Pawn was designated by using a small letter (also printed in italics).

Another English translation used the old notation where P-K4 became KP2, as described above.

At least one edition of the original French-language work modified algebraic notation to reduce ambiguity: the square from which a piece was moved was always listed as well as the piece moved and the square to which it was moved.

Another attempt at a descriptive notation comparable to algebraic notation appeared in the book Introduction Practique au Jeu des Échecs by Q. Poirson-Prugneaux (at least published by him; the author may have been anonymous).

Here, the pieces are designated like this:

                  . . .
Pawns:  t c f d r f c t
                  . . .
Pieces: T C F D R F C T

In fact, two dots, a diaresis, are placed over the King-side pieces, but I have no simple means to illustrate this.

Only the numbers from 1 to 4 are used to designate files. An apostrophe is placed after the letter indicating the piece to which the rank belongs to indicate that a square on the opponent's side of the board is being named.

Thus, in this system, when White moves, the squares of the board are named as shown below:

 -------------------------------------------------------
|      |      |      |      |      |   .  |   .  |   .  |
| 1 T' | 1 C' | 1 F' | 1 D' | 1 R' | 1 F' | 1 C' | 1 T' |
 ------+------+------+------+------+------+------+------
|      |      |      |      |      |   .  |   .  |   .  |
| 2 T' | 2 C' | 2 F' | 2 D' | 2 R' | 2 F' | 2 C' | 2 T' |
 ------+------+------+------+------+------+------+------
|      |      |      |      |      |   .  |   .  |   .  |
| 3 T' | 3 C' | 3 F' | 3 D' | 3 R' | 3 F' | 3 C' | 3 T' |
 ------+------+------+------+------+------+------+------
|      |      |      |      |      |   .  |   .  |   .  |
| 4 T' | 4 C' | 4 F' | 4 D' | 4 R' | 4 F' | 4 C' | 4 T' |
 ------+------+------+------+------+------+------+------
|      |      |      |      |      |   .  |   .  |   .  |
| 4 T  | 4 C  | 4 F  | 4 D  | 4 R  | 4 F  | 4 C  | 4 T  |
 ------+------+------+------+------+------+------+------
|      |      |      |      |      |   .  |   .  |   .  |
| 3 T  | 3 C  | 3 F  | 3 D  | 3 R  | 3 F  | 3 C  | 3 T  |
 ------+------+------+------+------+------+------+------
|      |      |      |      |      |   .  |   .  |   .  |
| 2 T  | 2 C  | 2 F  | 2 D  | 2 R  | 2 F  | 2 C  | 2 T  |
 ------+------+------+------+------+------+------+------
|      |      |      |      |      |   .  |   .  |   .  |
| 1 T  | 1 C  | 1 F  | 1 D  | 1 R  | 1 F  | 1 C  | 1 T  |
 -------------------------------------------------------

When Black moves, it is the White pieces that are the adverse ones, and so the apostrophes are placed only on the squares where they are not present above, thus inverting the rows of the board.

As in algebraic notation, the letter for the piece moved is placed before the designation of the square moved to, without additional punctuation.

Alternative or Improved Algebraic Notations

The original form of algebraic notation, invented by Philip Stamma, denoted the Queen's Rook by a and the King's Rook by h, denoting each piece by the letter of its initial file; Pawns, though, were all denoted by p.

When two pieces could move to a single square, an asterisk preceded the move if the one further on the Queenside moved, and followed the move if the one further on the Kingside moved; if both pieces were on the same file, then White took the place of the Queenside and Black that of the Kingside for this rule.

Lionel Adalbert Bagration Felix Kieseritzky, currently most remembered as being the losing party in the "Immortal Game", devised a form of algebraic notation which differs significantly in appearance from that which we use today.

This form of notation followed Stamma in using consecutive letters to stand for the pieces, although in this manner:

Pawns:  a b c d e f g h
Pieces: A B C D E F G H

so that the language-dependent P would not be used for the Pawn, and the eight pawns would be distinguished. This notation also denoted both the ranks and the files by numbers, and gave the number of the rank first, so that the Ruy Lopez would look like this:

Algebraic          Alternative

e4      e5         e45      e55
Nf3     Nc6        G36      B63
Bb5                F52

Captures are noted by following the move by a dash and then the letter denoting the piece captured. Castling is noted by O-O or O-O-O, but typically, instead of a capital letter O, a smaller raised circle is used. A move that gives check is noted by an X after the move; this is also in the style of a geometrical symbol, like a multiplication sign, but enlarged to be the full height of a capital letter.

Checkmate is indicated by a special sign consisting of two crossed pairs of double lines, also diagonal. When a capture also gives check, the dash between the move and the piece captured is replaced by a symbol made up of the X for check above a horizontal line.

Avoiding these special symbols, when I gave the score of the Immortal Game in Kieseritzky notation, I simply used xx for mate and placed the x after the move rather than using an underlined x when a capture also gave check.

At the time when this form of notation was used by Kieseritzky in his own publications, descriptive notation still involved giving the moves in the form of full sentences, and normal algebraic notation was not in common use, at least in France. Another system of notation, appearing in one book from 1845, was an early form of figurine algebraic notation; the symbol for a chess piece was followed by the number of the file to which it was moved, and then the number, as a superscript, of the rank to which it was moved. This was the reverse of the order of the digits in Kieseritzky's notation, but it shows that denoting squares by two-digit codes was considered reasonable at that time.

Also, a book called the Almanch des Échecs gave chess scores in descriptive notation and Kieseritzky's notation side by side, which would tend to imply that instead of being entirely idiosyncratic, Kieseritzky's notation had achieved some degree of popularity in its day.


A much slighter variation on modern algebraic notation was used in the book "A Complete Guide to the Game of Chess" by H. F. L. Meyer, published in 1882. In it, the pieces were designated by the following letters,

K King
L Queen
M Rook
N Bishop
O Knight
P Pawn

the squares being indicated normally.


The book Chess Exemplified in a Concise and Easy Notation proposed naming the squares of the board in this fashion:

   _b _d _t _f _l _s _p _k
   -----------------------
a |  |  |  |  |  |  |  |  |
   --+--+--+--+--+--+--+--
e |  |  |  |  |  |  |  |  |
   --+--+--+--+--+--+--+--
i |  |  |  |  |  |  |  |  |
   --+--+--+--+--+--+--+--
o |  |  |  |  |  |  |  |  |
   =======================
o |  |  |  |  |  |  |  |  |
   --+--+--+--+--+--+--+--
i |  |  |  |  |  |  |  |  |
   --+--+--+--+--+--+--+--
e |  |  |  |  |  |  |  |  |
   --+--+--+--+--+--+--+--
a |  |  |  |  |  |  |  |  |
   -----------------------
   b_ d_ t_ f_ l_ s_ p_ k_

which is reminiscent of the Gringmuth notation which actually is used for the transmission of Chess games by telegraph, but this was proposed for the ordinary notation of games as they might be read in a textbook on Chess.

Rather than denoting moves by the square from and the square to, as in Gringmuth notation, however, the piece is noted with the destination square as in algebraic notation, but the pieces are denoted as follows:

Pawns:  b d t f l s p k
Pieces: C N V Q M X H R

so that the eight Pawns and the two each of Rooks, Knights, and Bishops each have a distinctive label.

Neither Algebraic nor Descriptive: Compass Notation

A proposed telegraph code for transmitting Chess moves devised by Edwyn Anthony involved a form of Chess notation based on a radically different principle.

A move of the Queen's Bishop five spaces southwest would be noted as QBSW5, where North is towards Black's side of the board, and East is the King's side of the board.

Since the Knight moves only one step, numbers rather than letters were used to indicate the directions in which it could move:

 -------------------
|   | 8 |   | 1 |   |
 ---+---+---+---+---
| 7 |   |   |   | 2 |
 ---+---+---+---+---
|   |   | N |   |   |
 ---+---+---+---+---
| 6 |   |   |   | 3 |
 ---+---+---+---+---
|   | 5 |   | 4 |   |
 -------------------

One could use the letters A through H instead if one were to notate games involving the Nightrider. The numbers could still be used, on the other hand, for the Camel, Giraffe, and Zebra, even though they move in different directions. Given that, the letters A through H could be used not only for Camelriders, Girafferiders, and Zebrariders, but also for the Griffin.

One only runs into trouble with such pieces as the fiveleaper and the root-50 leaper, which can move in twelve different directions - although, in their case, four of those directions are conventional compass directions, so those designations could be mixed with the numbers from 1 through 8, or the root-65 leaper, which can move in sixteen different directions, none of which correspond to a compass direction.

The advantage of this sort of notation for a telegraphic code is that, since there are two Knights on the board and eight directions in which a Knight can move, now only eight codegroups are required to code all the Knight moves of one player, whereas if one had to fully identify the destination square, 128 codegroups would be needed; and the same applies to the moves of the other pieces; even the Queen can only make 56 different moves instead of 64.


Somewhat similar in principle, and also intended for the transmission of games by telegraph, is the Dynamic Notation of F. Startin Pilleau.

Its purpose is to allow any move in Chess to be represented by only two letters.

The first letter indicates the piece moved:

Pawns:  I J K L M N O P
Pieces: A B C D E F G H

The second letter indicates the move. For some pieces, this represents no problem.

For the Knight:

 -------------------
|   | D |   | E |   |
 ---+---+---+---+---
| C |   |   |   | F |
 ---+---+---+---+---
|   |   | n |   |   |
 ---+---+---+---+---
| B |   |   |   | G |
 ---+---+---+---+---
|   | A |   | H |   |
 -------------------

For the King:

 -----------
| D | E | F |
 ---+---+---
| C | k | G |
 ---+---+---
| B | A | H |
 -----------

Queen's side Castling is noted by A, King's side Castling by H, since when the King is in its initial position, these two moves go off the board.

For a White Pawn:

 -----------
| A | B | C |
 ---+---+---
|   | p |   |
 ---+---+---
|   |   |   |
 -----------

usually. When the Pawn promotes, alternate letters are used for the move if necessary to indicate underpromotion:

A B C - Queen
D E F - Rook
G H I - Bishop
J K L - Knight

It is noted in the description of the system that a promoted pawn retains the same identifying letter for the piece it has now become as it had when it was a Pawn, which, of course makes obvious sense as the means of minimizing ambiguities.

In the case of a black Pawn, the moves are noted as:

 -----------
|   |   |   |
 ---+---+---
|   | p |   |
 ---+---+---
| A | B | C |
 -----------

however, when a Black man is moved, while the letters are kept in the same file as when a White man is moved, the ranks are reversed, corresponding to the conventions of descriptive notation.

Thus, keeping the board in its conventional orientation with White at the bottom, the moves of the Black King are:

 -----------
| B | A | H |
 ---+---+---
| C | k | G |
 ---+---+---
| D | E | F |
 -----------

and the moves of the other pieces will be similarly transformed.

In the case of the Rook, if it moves along a file, the letter indicates whic rank along that file it moves to, and the letters used are A B C D E F G H.

If it moves along a rank, the letter indicates the file to which it is moved, and the letters used are I J K L M N O P.

Thus, depending on where the Rook actually is, one letter in each of these sequences would indicate it was not moved, and thus would not be used.

While a similar scheme could easily be set up for the Bishop, the situation for the Queen is more complicated because of the fact that it can also move orthogonally, and there are less than 32 letters in the alphabet.

So the Queen is taken care of first, and the moves of the Bishop are indicated in the same fashion as the diagonal moves of the Queen.

The orthogonal moves of the Queen are noted in the same fashion as the moves of the Rook.

Along one diagonal - the diagonal in the direction from White's Queen's Rook to Black's King's Rook - diagonal moves are noted in a simple fashion, similar to that of the Rook's orthogonal moves.

Here, the letters used are R S T U V W Y Z. So Q and X are omitted from the 24 letters used so far. R is always used for the square on the diagonal that is either on White's first rank, or on the Queen's Rook file, whichever one the diagonal intersects.

In the case of the opposite diagonal, the same eight letters are used to indicate the move, with R used for the square on White's first rank, or on the King's Rook file. Since the pieces are indicated by only the letters from A through P, the fact that a move is being made on the opposite diagonal is indicated by placing the letter for the move first, and the letter for the piece second.

Notation for Chinese Chess

The traditional form of notation for Xiangqi, Chinese Chess, is still widely used. It is sometimes termed a form of descriptive notation, but it is very different from the forms of descriptive notation used with Western chess.

The columns of the chessboard are numbered, counting down from 9 for the leftmost column to 1 for the rightmost column; that is, they're numbered from 1 to 9, but from right to left instead of left to right.

This is done from the viewpoint of each player for the recording of that player's moves.

Typically, the description of a move has four elements:

Forwards includes diagonal or Knight's moves that are partly forwards, which makes that symbol important in disambiguating moves.

When a move is directly forwards or backwards, such as the move forwards or backwards of a Chariot (which moves the same as a Rook), the number of squares moved is given instead of noting that the piece is being moved to the same file that it started from.

If both pieces of the same kind are on the same file, then the description of the move still has four elements, but now they are not the same ones:

Omitting the original file number of the piece makes sense in this case; there are only two Chariots, two Cannons, two Horses, and so on, and so if they're both in the same column, there is only one column like that.

Given that there are five Pawns in Chinese chess, although they don't capture diagonally, they can move sideways once they cross the river, cases where there are three Pawns in the same column, or two columns with two Pawns in them, are not covered by the information I have seen on Chinese Chess notation.


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