The Open File
by Life Master Mike Petersen (Zug)
Notes on Notation
Everyone today uses Algebraic notation to write down the moves. When I started playing tournament chess in 1970, the only method available in the US was English Descriptive notation.
English Descriptive works by having each file named after the piece originating on that file, with files nearest to the King being named things like the King’s Bishop file, the King Knight’s file, etc. The files nearest the Queen go by Queen Bishop’s file and so forth. Since the opposing King and Queen face each other across the board, we thankfully have only one King and Queen file. Interestingly, both Black and White count the ranks from their side of the board. Black’s K2 square is White’s K7 square, so each square has two names. The name you use on your scoresheet depends upon which side is making the move. Very confusing, don’t you think? You could have a move like “R/KR5 X P/R7.
Algebraic is much simpler. If you’ve ever played the game Battleship, then you already know how Algebraic works. Each square has one and only one name. The ranks and files are counted from White’s side of the board, with files named a through h and ranks numbered from 1 to 8. So, beginning with the first square to White’s left, we have a1. Counting up the board 4 squares we have a4. All the squares are named this way, and both Black and White use the same naming convention. It’s simple, unambiguous, and can be learned by a child within 5 minutes. The same move above would be written R5xh7.
The name gets me, though. Algebraic notation has absolutely nothing to do with algebra. Since it uses a coordinate system to name the squares in a grid pattern, maybe the name Cartesian notation would be more fitting, but who am I to say?
Anyway, I remember in the 1980’s there was a movement afoot in the USCF to introduce Algebraic notation to everyone. Man, what a situation. It was like BlueRay vs. HDDVD, 1980’s style. For a time, the USCF used both Algebraic and Descriptive in their magazine. It was a weird time, but finally, about 1990 or so, Algebraic won out over Descriptive, and the rest, as they say, was history.
Today, I am conversant in both methods. Because of this, I can read chess books from way back, because most books were written in English Descriptive until some point in the early 1980’s. Try to have someone who only knows Algebraic attempt to read MCO-10 and you’ll see what I mean. My favorite book, “The Ideas Behind the Chess Openings” by Rueben Fine is written using Descriptive notation. I don’t know if it has been reprinted using Algebraic.
Final piece of advice: If you don’t know English Descriptive, learn it. It will broaden your knowledge of chess because you won’t be limited to reading chess books only written after 1980.
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