Written form is what makes up recorded history, which has survived for centuries. Since many centuries ago and throughout the evolution of the game of chess, there have been various methods of documenting the games played for several reasons. Thanks to that, today we can explore the games that old masters played centuries ago. However, reading a descriptive notation to replay a game was not always easy. In the Middle Ages, players used a complicated system to record their games. Fortunately, today we rely on a much simpler technique of documentation for our games, called algebraic notation. Chess notation is not only what constitutes the collective history of the game but also the building block of our very personal history of chess. In this article, we’ll learn how to make use of chess moves notation and why it is crucial for any serious player to know how to write down moves.
An example of how chess boards used to look in old books from the Middle Ages. The particular diagram above is from the French Manuscript (1173).
What is chess notation?
In the algebraic system of move documentation, each square is assigned a letter and a number. These labels are called coordinates. Letters describe the horizontal coordinates of a square, while numbers are used for the vertical axis. To visualize this conception better, let’s take a look at the example below:
The diagram above shows an empty board from white’s perspective with board coordinates on it. Ranks are numbered from bottom to top, starting with 1 and all the way up to 8, while files refer to the vertical columns, with each of them assigned a letter from left to right, from ‘a’ to ‘h’. To give a unique name to each square, a chess notation uses a pair of file and rank. This way, the whole board constitutes a 1×1 grid-like system. For those who are familiar with Microsoft Excel software, it might help to think of chess board coordinates just like the cells in Excel. As an exercise, you may try to name the square of white’s queen by using the file-rank pair.
To describe where white’s queen is placed in the starting position, first we’d check the file she is placed on and then the rank. In this case, the queen is standing on the d1-square.
How do I read chess notation?
The most pivotal information a chess notation contains are the moves that are played in a game. This information is written down in two columns, where the left column corresponds to white’s moves and the right one to black’s moves. Each row in an algebraic notation corresponds to the move number. For example, the very first row would consist of white’s first move (written down under white’s column) and then black’s first move (under black’s column). These two moves together, white’s and black’s, make up a full move, whereas each of them would be referred to as a half-move. To describe a certain move, either white’s or black’s, we first write down the initials of the piece, followed by the coordinates of the square that this piece has moved to. Coordinates are given in the form of file-rank pairs, as mentioned previously.
For example, in the diagram above, white’s first move would be recorded as 1.Nf3, where N stands for the Knight. (The initial letter ‘K’ is reserved for the King; therefore, the Knight is abbreviated as ‘N’) The only exception to the piece abbreviations is a pawn. Pawn moves are expressed by only using the file-rank pair.
The example above demonstrates white’s most popular starting move as well as black’s most common response to that: 1.e4 e5. In many old books, you may come across a text like e2-e4, where both the starting square and the destination square of a piece are included. In modern usage, the starting squares of moving pieces are opted out, so we only write down the destination square. The complete list of piece abbreviations is as follows:
– K = King
– Q = Queen
– R = Rook
– B = Bishop
– N = Knight
– For pawn, we don’t use P, but only the destination square (e.g. e4, d5)
However, chess moves are not the only information the so-called chess scoresheet covers. A typical scoresheet has sections to be filled with players’ biographical information, such as name and surname, sometimes their country and their rating, and then the date of the game, information about the event (tournament name and round), and result.
The image above shows a unique scoresheet that was handwritten by the players during the Vishy Anand-Magnus Carlsen World Chess Championship Match in 2013 in Chennai, India. We can see the columns for white’s moves and black’s moves, along with the move number in each row. Once the game ends, the result is written in a space below the last moves. In this case, the ½ that we see in the move numbers 66-68 indicates that the game has ended in a draw. If the game was won by white, this would be expressed with ‘1-0’, whereas ‘0-1’ would be an indicator of black’s win. And most importantly, the scoresheet is signed by both players after the game. The true meaning of that is that they both agree that the indicated outcome of the game is correct. This way, signatures serve as official confirmation of the result.
How do I write down my and my opponent’s moves in chess board notation?
When writing down the moves on a scoresheet, we only write white’s moves under white’s column and black’s moves under black’s column, no matter with which pieces we are playing with. The players’ names are in the order of white first, followed by the player’s name with black pieces. This way, the sides will be clear. There is no explicit distinction between ‘my’ and ‘my opponent’s’ moves; rather, the names are assigned to the sides (white and black) to clarify between which players the game occurred. Let’s take a look at the nitty-gritty of writing down each move and the meanings of several symbols.
To document a usual move, it is enough to write the initials of the piece (except for pawns) and the coordinates of the destination square that the piece has moved to. For example, ‘Bc4’ would mean the bishop has moved to the c4 square, or, in other words, after this move, in the resulting position, the bishop is standing on the c4 square. However, here is a trick situation:
Let’s imagine that you are playing the position above with the black pieces, and you would like to develop the knight from the b8 to the d7 square. However, if you have played this move and then recorded it as …Nd7, it could lead to confusion when reading it. The knight on f6 could also move to d7, so for someone who is reading the game notation for the first time and does not know about the game, it would be unclear to which knight’s move …Nd7 refers to. To distinguish cases when two pieces of the same type can move to the same square, we add either the starting file or rank information right after the piece’s initial. E.g., in this case, it would be …Nbd7, because the knight moves from the b8 square.
In this position, black’s rook on 2nd rank is attacking both of white’s pawns (a2 and e2) and white would like to defend them in some way. One way would be to defend the rank by moving one of the rooks to the 2nd rank. Both of white’s rooks are on the same file (b) and could move to b2. If white moves the rook from b7 to b2, we would document it as R7b2, where ‘7’ indicates the starting rank of the rook.
Checks are indicated with a plus sign (“+”) at the end of the move.
White could give a check here with 1.Rh4+ and 1…Kg5 would black’s only legal response. If white has continued with 2.Rf5#, it would not only be check but also checkmate; therefore, we would use ‘#’ instead of ‘+’.
In the case of captures, an “x” sign is put between the piece initial and the piece destination. E.g. Qxd4 (Queen captured a piece on the d4 square) or exd4 (e-pawn captured the piece on d4).
Castling is a special move performed by the king and rook in chess that combines moving two pieces in one go. Kingside castling (also known as short-castle) is shown with ‘0-0’, whereas queenside castling or long-castle is referred to as ‘0-0-0’.
En Passants are expressed just like any other pawn captures, e.g., dxe6. The suffix ‘dxe6 e.p.’ is optional and not so commonly used.
When a pawn reaches the opposite end of the board, it is promoted to a queen, rook, bishop, or knight, according to the player’s choice. This action is known as pawn promotion. The notation for pawn promotion is straightforward. First, write the move that the pawn makes, followed by an equals sign (“=”) and the initial of the piece the pawn is promoted to. For example, if a pawn moves to the eighth rank and is promoted to a queen, it would be notated as ‘e8=Q‘. This notation indicates that the pawn on the e-file has moved to the eighth rank and has been promoted to a queen.
Chess notation examples
Above can be seen two different scoresheets of the same match, handwritten by the players (P. Svidler and V. Anand).
Scoresheet of the game between D. Byrne and the former World Champion Fischer
Before algebraic notation became the standard in the 1980s, many scoresheets looked like the image above, using a descriptive notation with letters. This type of documentation of moves can be seen in most of the old books.
The importance of documenting chess moves
– For any serious tournament, it is obligatory to keep a record of the moves during the game. This practice formalizes the outcome, which is mutually confirmed by players through their signatures after the game. A signed scoresheet can serve as proof material in the event of an appeal.
– Apart from the mandatory procedure of tournament regulations, the biggest benefit of documenting moves is that you can replay your played games and learn from your mistakes.
– Documenting moves makes it possible to share the games and knowledge. All the chess books rely on such documentation.
Chess moves are like the words of a language that function as a tool for communication. Mastering chess notation, akin to learning how to write and read, is one of the initial and crucial steps for delving deeply into the world of chess. Fortunately, it is a relatively straightforward skill to acquire, offering immense benefits for those looking to enhance their game or engage with chess more professionally.