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The Open File - Notes on Notation

  • NM Zug
  • | Sep 2, 2009

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.


Click here for links to Mike's other work on Chess.com


  • 4 years ago


    I don't think that anyone has pointed out one great problem with descriptive notation. Back in the days before computers when we had to set up a board "and men--as they used to say it--there could be a problem with the knght pair. If White, say, had a pair of knights, each of which could hit the same square in one hop, the notation could read: KN-K6, or QN-K6.  Which knight was the KN and which was the QN? You'd have to go back and play over the entire game to figure out which knight was hopping. I solved the pproblem by having the knights face each other at the beginning position, but if I forgot and turned the faces during pay, a natural motion, the confusion would reppear.

  • 5 years ago


    Can someone place links to internet sides where they explane the writtings in both ways, perhaps with some examples.

    It would be nice to understand the notations but i have difficulties finding explications on one place.

    Thx in advance

  • 5 years ago


     By the way why the "Fischer boom" is infamous?!? Someone can consider Bobby Fischer either famous or infamous but why to apply this to the "Fischer boom"?


     On the words and terminology issue og mine, the right word ishe a probably: inherent, the descriptive one is the inherent chess notation.

     On the antipodes you could just write: 24. d4f3 e7f8 and so on...

  • 5 years ago


     And last but not least: Quentin Tarantino's "Inglourious Basterds" is a very attractive and much more clever movie about the rise and productivity of ...

  • 5 years ago


     * The descriptive is a kind of hybrid also (that's why the arbitrary -but historically-based of course- term: english) given that the king has another word for the greek, the german, the chinese, the russian, the israeli, the arab etc.

     Given the "Staunton-figures Convention" the figurine one is  another hybrid of the stardard but a figurine + descriptive one would be (have been or what?!?) really a fully-chessgame-based which you could call english (or Staunton) also!! There was a good point during its time too, in late 60's and 70's FIDE intended to introduce the game to China, Japan, Arab peoples and it would have been a bad idea (at this time) to ask by ex-Vietkong , Palestinians etc. to read the moves in a certain alphabet!... By now (almost?) all of them watch Hollywood movies (and even Hollywood masterpieces) and this small problem is over! The die-hard Staunton one has a few disadvantages however, in fact is very ... funny to read and by far non-writt(e)able, just imagine the move            32. QNRxB etc written by means of Staunton figures!....  

     There is obviously a moral in this Vavel and the rise and supremacy of the algebraic notation also but let's point out that there are at least four notations of the move:

     24. d4-f3 ..., 24. N(d)4-f3 ..., 24. Nfigure(d)4-f3 ..., 24. N4-B3 ...(yes ... given only two white knights on the chessboard as I have said!) plus the puristic one...

     By the way: the terminology of operands and operators comes from abstract algebra or from computer science?!? I incline to make a bet for the last guess but I want to point out that an empty square can be a last operand but never a first one...

    Anyway I have to restrain myself!... Thanks again!  

  • 5 years ago


     The standard notation has need of a superstructure over the chessboard and the very game of chess, the arbitrary agreement on the naming of every given square of the chessboard by means of an "extra-game", e.g. an exterior to the game (arbitrary of course) symbol and in fact the standard notation is an hybrid  of the just-chessboard-based notation (the really cartesian one maybe) and the use of the names* of the pieces of the descriptive one. There is some point in this, I mean that e.g the move 24. N(d)4-f3 (supposing there is also another knight in white's Q2) written as simply 24. d4-f3 etc. has the taste of an algebraic book, not just the  lovely game of chess with the psycho-dynamics emotional impressions of the names, images and mythos of the pieces!

     The descriptive one on the contrary is  fully-chessgame*-based which is the reason of its difficulty and its power.

  • 5 years ago


     The descriptive ("english", "chinese", "indian", "arabic" or whatever) notation had (and has!) two small advantages over the standard one: firstly it is the natural, the "innate" (maybe there is a better term, I don't remember the one used in differential geometry when I was a student more than twenty years ago, the ... greek word is "συμφυής" which is not very enlightening to non-greek audience!...) notation of the game of chess by which I mean that you have just to know the names* of the pieces , the initial position of the standard game of chess and to count up to the relatively last file and last but not least the chessplayer has to perceive from the very beginning the "topography" of the possible movements of the pieces over the chessboard, let's say the chess kinematics which is essentially an initial introduction to blind chess and to mental counting... That's why I do believe that it's useful for every chess player to become familiar (at some moment of his studentship) with the old notation and not just in order to have unresticted access to chess literature!

     Thanks for the useful stimulation to think!

  • 5 years ago


    When I played chess way back, everything was descriptive (algebraic was started, but most of the books were in descriptive. I also hated algebraic - I could not read a book without a chess board! 5. ... P-KN3 I could visualise, but not 5...g6!)

    When I restarted again, everything was algebraic.

    Wikes! It took quite some time getting used to!

  • 5 years ago


    Zug wrote:

    "If I were to agree with your comment about logical operators and operands, English Descriptive notation could also have been called Algebraic, as it has operators and operands, but just symbolized in a different way."


    You're absolutely right. Well, that settles it, then. We need to start a movement to change the name of English Descriptive notation to English Algebraic notation! Who's with me??

  • 5 years ago


    One of Larry Evans's old books ( Vienna 1922) he says he took the original scores and converted them to Descriptive Notation--I still laugh when i read that.

    As a young kid in the 70's I always used algebraic to psych out the older opponents--though I can read and use either notation.

  • 5 years ago


               Yes, my first time around playing chess was in the 1970's, and I must admit
    when i first started playing again it was hard getting used to algebraic notation.
               I kind of miss the nostalgia of the old method in my "antique" chess books,
    along with our old Pontiac Lemans with the racing stripes and our rotary phone.

  • 5 years ago


    If you want real descriptive notation, try reading some of the very early works by the likes of Philidor. In the absence of any standard notation, they need a short sentence to describe each move! (I haven't got it in front of me but it's something like "The King's pawn to King's fourth", etc)

  • 5 years ago


    Also, if you want to read chess literature in languages other than English, algebraic is mandatory. You just need to get used to different letter designations for the pieces, e.g. L = Läufer, S = Springer etc.

  • 5 years ago

    NM Zug

    To centercounter:

    Well, Chuck, it's about time you joined chess.com.

    Now pay up for a premium membership!  Laughing

    - Mike

  • 5 years ago


    I actually use figurine algebraic notation on my scoresheets.

  • 5 years ago


    Does anyone use the coordinate system for notation.  Example:  your R/KR5xP/R7, R5xh7, would be Rh5xh7 in coordinate.  Also, mate is symbolized by '++' instead of "#".

  • 5 years ago

    NM Zug

    To the_big_j_77:

    If I were to agree with your comment about logical operators and operands, English Descriptive notation could also have been called Algebraic, as it has operators and operands, but just symbolized in a different way.

    Concerning the metric system, until all countries agree to it, it won't change in the countries where it is not used.  The US was the last holdout on English Descriptive, so we were practically forced to change there.  Not so on metric, at least not yet.

    At any rate, thanks for your comments. 

    Regards, Zug

  • 5 years ago


    "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?"


    In mathematics, algebraic notation is the process of representing operator and operands in a logical formula. The operator is written between the operands on which it acts (e.g.  a + b). To me, that looks very similar to the algebraic chess notation from your example: R5xh7. With R5 being one operand and h7 being the other. The "x" is the operator written between the two operands defining how they interact. In this case, it is telling us that the Rook on the 5th rank (R5) moved and captured (x) the piece on (h7). Maybe that clears up some confusion? Wink

    At any rate, I enjoyed your article - a very interesting read. As a side note, I wonder if the metric system will ever finally "win out" over the old english system as algebraic notation appears to have done in the chess world?

  • 5 years ago


    Interesting perspective, Mike. Then there was the old "figurine notation" that I believe Reuben Fine used in some of my favorite books by him, that was a trip! I broke in a little after you -- my introduction to serious chess was coincidental to but simultaneous with the infamous "Fischer boom" -- so I was definitely in the middle of the descriptive/algebraic controversey. It was very difficult to have two systems floating around in your head. After a couple years of tournament chess I was writing my games down in algebraic and reading books (constantly!) in descriptive. For those of us who analyze our moves while we're playing by using notation it got quite confusing there for a while!


    The biggest problem I have today is (especially when playing with the Black pieces) is getting the numbers wrong when I go to the other side of the board -- so, in other words, if I move a b pawn from b5 to b4 I'll often think ... b5.


    It does help to broaden your horizons to know both -- I wish I could get most of the people I work with in chess just to learn algebraic (or Cartesian :)) and stick with it -- is that so hard? :)

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