The Ghost of Descriptive Notation

The Ghost of Descriptive Notation

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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.

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