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Why I Use Descriptive Notation Rather Than Algebraic

Dec 12, 2016, 9:00 AM 0

I'm somewhat unusual for a competitive chess player. I carry around an analogue clock rather than a digital one; I use a grizzled old chess board that was given to me long ago by the Florida high school champion and which still bears his name; I don't study theory, but rather let experience be my guide; and I use descriptive notation rather than algebraic when recording my moves. This last one sticks out like a sore thumb whenever my opponent asks to see my score sheet in order to correct his notation, since algebraic is the official method for recording moves and the lingua franca for virtually all competitive players. But there is method to my madness.

For the uninitiated, algebraic notation uses the letters and numbers that appear along the sides of most tournament boards, giving each square a unique identifier that is the same for both players (e.g., a1, c4, f5, etc.). Descriptive notation is the older method that doesn't assign a single identifier to each square, but rather is based on the perspective of each player and gives a square two identifiers. For example, the square that is the fifth one up from my king is called "K5," which is what I call it whenever I move a piece there. However, if my opponent moves a piece to that same square, I will identify it from his perspective and call it "K4," since it is the fourth square up from his king.

The first reason I prefer descriptive notation is personal. Shortly after I had learned how the pieces move, but before I knew anything about tactics or strategy, I played a game against a friend of mine in the school library. He had been playing apparently since infancy, whereas I was a late bloomer and started playing only in high school. He crushed me while some imp of an onlooker mercilessly mocked. I resolved never to let that happen again, so I checked out every chess book in the school library and spent my idle time reviewing the great games -- all of which were recorded in descriptive notation. From there, I used descriptive notation when competing in scholastic tournaments, and just two years after my humiliation in the library I helped our school's team win the state championship, scoring 4 out of 5 personally. After that experience, descriptive notation was burned into my brain, and I didn't want to re-tool merely to use an algebraic system that doesn't resonate with me.

But there is a deeper, philosophical reason I prefer descriptive notation. Algebraic notation is cold, antiseptic, impersonal, and embodies the modern "scientific" approach to chess that I abhor. This approach squeezes the mystery and romance out of the game -- and it is a game, whose goal is enjoyment -- by treating all moves as either "right" or "wrong" just as it treats all squares as having a single, mathematical-sounding tag. How I see the board and the moves is not how my opponent sees them, and descriptive notation is a helpful reminder of that. The "right" move in scientific terms is often not the best move as between the actual human beings who are playing. Descriptive notation dates from a time when chess was a game rather than a profession or a subject of soulless, monomaniacal study. I reject algebraic notation for the same reason I reject keeping track of points during a game, or presumptuously announcing a fluid position as won or lost, or memorizing an opening to the 20th move -- they are all impious attempts to thrust the game of kings under an electron microscope and rob it of its humanity. Humanity and all its imperfections are what make chess so wonderful; they should not be spliced away from it in the rabid pursuit of victory.


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