The Ghost of Descriptive Notation

  • IM Silman
  • | Nov 22, 2010

Glen asked:

I have an old chess book titled Chess Traps, Pitfalls & Swindles by I.A. Horowitz and Fred Reinfeld published in 1954. In the first pages of the book they use notations like N-N3 and B-N5 etc.

There is no explanation in the book as to what squares are “N”. I can’t use the book without knowing what they are referring to.

Dear Glen:

That old classic book, Chess Traps, Pitfalls & Swindles, makes use of “descriptive notation” (1.P-K4 P-QB4), which was the standard until the early 1970s. Thus, all American books before the 70s used this form of notation, which is more or less forgotten now (and unknown to young players, or those just familiarizing themselves to the game).

Ah, you made me nostalgic, so I just took out my pristine 1st edition hardcover (with mint jacket!) of that book. The price for this 245-page hardcover in 1954? $3.50! Times have really changed!

Anyway, I digress. Nowadays everyone uses “algebraic notation” (1.e4 c5), but there was a time when the lone descriptive notation nation (“notation nation” kind of has a ring to it) was the U.S., which fiercely defended descriptive. I still remember angry letters from American chess players begging the United States Chess Federation not to succumb to the “Commie” algebraic form, and stick with the “all-American” descriptive. Unfortunately, descriptive is just plain inferior to algebraic, and algebraic eventually became the world standard (and rightfully so).

Descriptive is a simple but rather ponderous system: N-N3 means Knight to Knight three. Of course, if you have two Knights that can go to the N3 square on both sides of the board, you would adjust the notation by writing, N-QN3 (Knight to Queen Knight three) or N-KN3 (Knight to King Knight three). If both your Knights (let’s say they stood on QB1 [Queen Bishop One] and Q4 [Queen Four]) could leap to QN3, and you intended to move the Knight on QB1 there, you would write N1-N3. If the Knight on Q4 stood on a1, you couldn’t write N1-N3 anymore because both Knights are on “1”. Thus you would write: NB-N3 or NB1-N3. Compare this to algebraic: Ncb3. It’s clearly a lot smoother and a lot more elegant. 

BTW (that doesn’t stand for Bishop to the W file), a capture in descriptive is symbolized by an “x”. Thus, if a Queen on h5 wanted to chop the enemy pawn on h7 (checking the enemy King in the process), you would write QxRPch. (Qh7+ in algebraic). If the Queen could capture both rook-pawns, but you still wanted to take on h7, you would write: QxKRPch. (algebraic is still Qh7+).

I should add that in the late 60s all the young, cool players already used algebraic. We knew it was superior, and chicks hated guys that used descriptive. On top of that, we added yet another layer of cool to it by only using German algebraic (which further tormented the old timers and intoxicated the ladies). Thus, instead of Nc3 we would write, Sc3 (“S” for Springer … and “S” for sexy). Yes indeed, we were rebels!


Stephen Tuba asked:

What if I as Black want to play the Sicilian but White does not want to cooperate?

If White plays d3 rather than the standard taken-for-granted d4, what is Black to do?

What makes white’s d3 so bad that it isn’t even mentioned in any analysis I’ve seen.

Dear Mr. Tuba:

After 1.e4 c5 you are still playing a Sicilian, no matter what White does. However, if you intended to play the Najdorf and he tosses out 2.d3, you’ll have to adjust.

This is true of all openings. Let’s say you are a French Defense player and love meeting 1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nc3/3.Nd2 with 3…dxe4 4.Nxe4 Nf6 5.Bg5 Be7 6.Bxf6 gxf6 (an old favorite of mine). So you sit down, White plays 1.e4, you play 1…e6 (already imagining his face when you play 6…gxf6), and White plays 2.Qe2. So much for your intended line!

Even worse, what if you are dying to play a Sicilian but your opponent plays 1.d4? Is this guy a bastard or what?

There are only two things you can do about uncooperative opponents:

* Bring extra cash to the game and, after 1.e4 c5, if he plays 2.d3 offer him $200 to take that move back and play the more normal 2.Nf3. Unfortunately, after he accepts your offer and pockets your money, he will answer 2.Nf3 d6 with 3.d3 and you’ll have to pay him again to push the pawn one square further.

* Learn the ideas of your opening, the squares you usually go after, the typical breaks, the tactics that often occur, etc. Then, after 1.e4 c5 2.d3 you can come up with something logical – no memorization needed. For example, 2…Nc6 followed by 3…g6 has to be good (clamping down on the d4-square since White kindly refused to play d2-d4).

Keep in mind that few amateur opponents are going to allow you to play your favorite lines. No, they aren’t wary of your knowledge, they just don’t know what they are doing. This means that most of the time your hoped for preparation will be nothing more than an exciting dream. But these “uncooperative” lines shouldn’t bother you! After 1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 gives White chances for an opening advantage, but 2.d3 doesn’t. So, for the most part, uncooperative lines just make your life easier.

On the other hand, there are some very strong players that don’t like to memorize a bunch of stuff and just want to play chess. Thus, lines like 1.e4 c5 2.d3 (which isn’t bad), or 1.e4 e6 2.Qe2, are perfectly okay. Nevertheless, if you know your openings’ ideas, you’ll do fine against anything.

Oh, one final thing: 1.e4 c5 2.d3 isn’t a specific line since White has the option of transposing into other systems. For example, 1.e4 c5 2.d3 Nc6 3.Nd2 with the intention of playing a King’s Indian Attack via Ngf3, g3, Bg2, etc. is a very real possibility.

White will often also transpose into a Closed Sicilian: 1.e4 c5 2.d3 Nc6 3.Nc3 followed by g3 and Bg2.

1.e4 c5 2.d3 can also allow White to try oddities like 3.f4 or even 3.c4.

Here’s an example of a master that used a d3 oddity against me.

F. Frenkel – J. Silman,National Open 1992

1.e4 c5 2.d3 Nc6 3.c4 g6 4.f4 Bg7 5.Nc3 d6 6.g4 Nd4 7.h4 (I guess he wants to mate me. How rude!) 7...h5 8.gxh5 Rxh5 9.f5 Nf6 10.Bg5 Bd7 11.Bg2 Qa5 12.Nh3 0-0-0 13.Nf4 Rhh8 14.fxg6 Be8 15.h5 fxg6 16.hxg6 Rxh1+ 17.Bxh1 Bd7 18.Kd2 Rh8 19.Qg1 Ng4 20.Bg2 b5! 21.cxb5 Nxb5 22.Nfe2 c4! (Ripping open lines so I can reach his juicy King) 23.Bf4 Rf8 24.d4 Nxd4 25.Nxd4 Rxf4 26.Nde2 Rf2 27.Ke1 Qb6 28.Bh3 Bxc3+ 29.bxc3 Qe3 30.Qxg4 [30.Bxg4 Rxe2+ 31.Kf1 Qf4+ 32.Kxe2 Bxg4+ 33.Ke1 Qxe4+ mates] 30…Bxg4 31.Bxg4+ Kc7 32.g7 Rg2, 0-1.


  • 12 months ago


    Does anyone know where I can purchase an analysis board that has the older descriptive notation included on the board itself?  

    I'm working through some older classic texts (Tarrasch, Lasker, etc.) and cannot seem reliabily to make the translation in my head in a consistent fashion.  I'm having to rework many of the lessons because I keep making mistakes.  I've also tried to write the descriptive names of each square (from both black's and white's perspective) on an old cheap wooden analysis board I have, but the results are really sloppy.

    Surely there's a board out there that has this notation already baked in, right?


  • 12 months ago


    Does anyone know where I can purchase an analysis board that has the older descriptive notation included on the board itself?  

    I'm working through some older classic texts (Tarrasch, Lasker, etc.) and cannot seem reliabily to make the translation in my head in a consistent fashion.  I'm having to rework many of the lessons because I keep making mistakes.  I've also tried to write the descriptive names of each square (from both black's and white's perspective) on an old cheap wooden analysis board I have, but the results are really sloppy.

    Surely there's a board out there that has this notation already baked in, right?


  • 19 months ago


    Hehe, next step for the USA is to adopt the 24hr ("military") clock and the metric system!


    inb4 "commie bastard!" X3

  • 5 years ago


    My letter to Chess Life in the April 1968 issue: started the process and I think I was the first person to use the initials AN and DN.  For it's background:

    I had plowed through a book in German on the Caro-Kann and wrote that letter shortly after seeing a question on notation in a survey the US Chess Federation sent out the year before.

  • 5 years ago

    NM BMcC333

    As was pointed out earlier, d3 does have a name, it is Mieses opening. I published some games with the line. So yes, Silman was completely wrong about 1 d3 not having a name because it can transpose to other things. I was right about that, but wrong in my details, the line did have a famous player pushing it, Mieses.

  • 5 years ago


    In algebraic notation, you learn the notationfor each square on the board whether white or black and it becomes 2nd nature.  Much more economical and precise than the descriptive I grew up with.  However, I'm bilingual I really don't much care which system is used in chess books, and a lot of my favorites, such as Tartakower's "500 Master Games" have never been rewritten, nor should they be. In OTB though, algebraic rules!

  • 6 years ago


    I grew up with the descriptive notation, and I still find the algebraic notation to be a hassle.  The problem is that I can't visualize moves in algebraic notation.  I actually have to look at a board.  With the descriptive notation it is... well.... descriptive.  When you say P-KB4 it's clear what is being moved and where because I can see it in my mind.  I personally think that the algebraic notation is inferior, especially when your playing black.  You have to turn the board around so that the pieces are on the right squares.  With descriptive notation it doesn't matter because the ranks are always 1 to 8 from each side's perspective.

  • 6 years ago


    There is no need for racism.


  • 6 years ago


    Algebraic is easier if you are white but descriptive is better if you are black (and dyslexic) case closed!

  • 6 years ago


    sexy notation...nice!

  • 6 years ago


    The algebraic notation system is connected to Philipp Stamma (ca.1705–1755) from Aleppo, Syria, while the descriptive system is connected to the french master François-André Danican Philidor (1726–1795).

    In his book "Essai sur le jeu des echecs" published 1737 in France, Stamma introduced algebraic chess notation in an almost fully developed form before the descriptive chess notation evolved. But only speaking of a few years. I think it is interesting that both systems are that "old". Philidor's writings had more influence after his victory over Stamma, and the descriptive system based on Philidor's approach was dominant for a long time.

    Thanks to the "PGN"-format we now can read chess from anywhere in the world on most computers worldwide. We can even read and follow main events live from internet. Even if quite a good deal of chess software can "read" both standards, the PGN is fully in algebraic. I would also like to point out that neighter of the two systems are ambigous if written and read correctly.

    In my own opinion it is sound to accept history, meaning it is sound to use the main "language" spoken by people around you. That is why I try to write these lines in english, even it that is not my mother tongue, and to use algebraic (PGN) notation, event though I had to convert to it some 30 years ago.

  • 6 years ago


    Well, it sounds like a Closed Sicilian to me. Say, after 1 e4 c5 2 d3 d6 3 Nf3 Nc6 4 g3 it certainly tranposes into the Closed Sicilian/Zukertort Opening hybrid.

    With regard to descriptive notation, I found it difficult to follow as a young boy in the 1970s and the 1980s. My father taught me algebraic notation when we came here in 1975. However, Chess Life and Review still had many games in the old descriptive notation, so it was difficult to follow. That said, I learned descriptive in the late 1970s. My first surviving tournament games scores  are in descriptive notation. I assure you, for a 13-year-old kid in November 1980, it was not easy to keep score!  

    However, the old descriptive notation is not forgotten. At the West Orange Chess Club in New Jersey, we have a number of middle-aged and elderly players who still use the old descriptive notation. I have seen a few younger players use that notation as well. However, I concur in that children find it much easier to use the algebraic notation because of its simplicity.

    To be frank, I vaguely remember these arguments about "Commie" algebraic notation and "All-American" descriptive notation. Seems to me these arguments continued into the early 1980s. I did not follow chess politics until the Karpov-Korchnoi matches of 1978 and 1981. Even back then I understood that Korchnoi was facing tremendous odds. The Russian-language newspaper Novoye Russkoye Slovo that was (and still is) published in New York had detailed commentaries and political analyses on the chess matches. NRS  was very anti-Communist at the time.

    Phillip Stamma, a Syrian, was the inventor of descriptive notation, back in the 1700s. I think another chessplayer modified it somewhat, and thus it became popular in the 1800s. Germany, Russia, Spain, Portugal and France used algebraic; the English-speaking world used descriptive. Howard Staunton, an Englishman, advocated the algebraic notation as the easier of the two to use.

    I am familiar with the old descriptive notation; the algebraic; German; Russian and Spanish chess notations. Though I must confess, it is not easy translating the names of the pieces from Spanish notation into English or Russian! 

  • 6 years ago



    When you say, "Nowadays everyone uses “algebraic notation”" I can't imagine of whom you are speaking... of course I suppose you would consider me a "no one," and I suppose you would be right, but there are still quite a few of us "no one's" who have not kow-towed to the kommy korruption of "everyone's" use of algebraic notation Wink.

    You say, "Unfortunately, descriptive is just plain inferior to algebraic..." NOT SO FAST with your hasty generalizations and anti-American propaganda Komrad Silman. In what way is it supposedly inferior? In whose opinion? Who died and left you czar, er excuse me, premier? I suppose you will insist that algebraic is klearer and more koncise than the good old American Descriptive notation. Yet if you will only peruse the komments on this site you will find that there is just as much konfusion using algebraic, if not more. All too often people write something like Ng5 when they really mean Nb4. HEY! THIS IS AMERICA!!! WE READ RIGHT TO LEFT HERE!!! And it is only natural to count from 1 to 8 as opposed to 8 to 1.

    You say, "and algebraic eventually became the world standard (and rightfully so)." WHOA!!! NOT SO FAST to join the konspiracy!!! The algebraic system has done much to undermine good ol' American Chess. The only reason we adopted it was because of all these kommy "defectors" (i.e. infilTRAITORS) who kouldn't read plain english. But what a Klever Kommy ploy this was. The real plan was to make REAL Americans chess illiterate, forcing the CCCP endorsed books upon us and rendering us unable to read the good ol' American books that would equip us with the secrets to defeating the kommy chess kingdom. Away with all these kommy infilTRAITORS... Give us REAL American chess players (like Hikaru Nakamura and Gata Kamsky... oh yeah... and Yasser Sierawan... No Sir! Don't forget Yasser!) Laughing

    And by the way.... if you believe this kommy kover up that says Bobby Fischer is dead, you're even more gullable than... than... than Larry Evans! I saw Bobby playing chess with Elvis just the other day.


  • 6 years ago


    "Does anyone know why blindfold was outlawed in Russian in the 1930's?"

    Blindfolds were reserved for something else under Stalin. "Yes, it IS a rather long walk to the next table, but please keep moving."

  • 6 years ago


    On Descriptive Notation, I believe that it's biggest weakness is that every square has one label for the player with the white pieces and a different label for the player with the black pieces.  Thus, the square designated by algebraic as c4 is in Descriptive  QB4 for white, but QB5 for black.

    I was fascinated to see reference to "All-American Descriptive".  The system was actually developed in England and in most countries referred to as English Descriptive Notation.

  • 6 years ago


    "BMCc333 was enraged at my saying that 1.e4 c5 2.d3 isn't a specific line. He said, "This is just wrong.""

    Silman is clearly not very good at taking contructive criticism! Enraged?? Hahahaha!

    I"m tossing my copy of How to reasses your chess. It's full of errors and self-congratulatory exclamation points anyway. I'll stick to a real Book, like Lasker's Manual. 

    Wow, so much for professional integrity.

  • 6 years ago


    @jetsetter : If you played a game 1.e4 c5 2.d3 1/2-1/2 (draw agreed) there would actually be an ECO for it. I guess most chessplayers would call it a Sicilian defence. But as you pointed out, if you play on, the ECO could be changed along the road. Chess isn't static, it is dynamic. The game is a living thing and it is changing and developing all the way. It finds its own way each time. The opening position is a position in balance, and whites first move is creating an unbalance in the position and black has to react to the white move 1. Trying to maintain balance or create another unbalance. The unbalance is the first seed to a win or a loss. The "Name of the game"  (the correct ECO) is created along the road...

  • 6 years ago

    Arun_1986 should have a like button as in facebook :). Nice article.

    Thanks and Cheers,

  • 6 years ago


    I thought Chess Traps, Pitfalls, and Swindles was an incredible book - I still have my old copy that is sadly falling apart.  Does anyone remeber the story in it about Mr. P.R.O.P?  (Mister Professional Rook Odds Player)

    On the subject of descriptive notation, once I was playing over one of those 112 move manuevering games and around move 65 the move was "KR-B5."  How the heck can you keep track of which rook was the king rook after all those moves???  That was one of the annoying things about descriptive.

  • 6 years ago

    NM BMcC333

    Thanks for the "defense" Jetsetter. I agree with your sentiment and don't agree with censoring all these people who are customers. i did not mean my comments as some kind of personal attack on Mr Silman, it was the easiest way to make my point.

    It is my opinion, as a chess master, it is quite clear openings are named by the person or tournament that introduced them and made them famous, in rare cases by how the pawn structure looks or some defining characteristic. Cambridge Springs, Benko, Paulsen, Richter Rauzer, Dragon,, King's Gambit on and on. Name one opening that was not named this way. If a world champ used e4 c5 d3 to win events it would have a name. e4 c5 d3 has never provoked enough interest to deserve a name outside "Sicilian". Transpositions have nothing to do with how an opening is named. Most books on the English start with 1 c4. If there is a fianchetto involved, it is rightly called the English-Bremen system, so I am not sure which pawn structure Jetsetter, who called me wrong, is referring to. When Korchnoi plays 1 c4 most people say he plays the English, although his games largely wind up in main line d4 games, not the Bremen set up.

    When someone asks why doesn't e4 e5 Nf3 have a name, they may as well as why doesnt e4 or d4 have a name. These lines were well established before mankind began naming openings. 


    Wikipedia is far from the ultimate authority, as I was acccused of being, but it is on my side here:

    In chess, the English Opening is the opening where White begins 1.c4.

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