At some point in your chess journey, you will inevitably encounter chess notation. It can look complicated and intimidating at first, but it is actually quite simple. In this tutorial, we go over the basics of chess notation, including how to read and write chess notation, and why learning it is such an important part of mastering chess. Let's get started!
What is Chess Notation?
Before we begin, it is important to define our terms. Chess notation can be loosely defined to mean any way of recording either an individual chess move, several chess moves, or an entire chess game. Over the years, many different methods for recording this information have been invented, but the only one that remains in use today is called algebraic chess notation. It is also sometimes called algebraic notation, or simply AN.
This tutorial will only focus on algebraic notation, and we will use the terms 'algebraic notation' and 'chess notation' interchangeably, but it is important to remember that other forms of chess notation were used in the past. You may encounter other forms of chess notation, such as descriptive notation, when reading older chess literature, but for the most part, any chess literature or chess software you encounter will stick to algebraic notation, possibly with minor variations.
Why Should I Learn Chess Notation?
Learning how to read chess notation is a necessary step to becoming a great chess player. Mastering the ability to read and write chess moves will allow you to study chess more efficiently by improving your ability to read chess literature, interact with chess software, and study old games.
It is also important to know how to read and write chess notation if you ever plan to enter a chess tournament, because chess tournament's require players to record all of their moves in algebaric notation as they play.
Most importantly, chess notation allows you to textualize your moves. This way, you need not have a chess board in front of you when practicing chess. You can visualize the board in your mind, and record your moves as text. And that's what Odin Chess is about: we believe that by moving the game from the board to your mind, you will be able to better visualize long sequences that are critical in classical chess games.
The first thing you need to understand if you want to read and write chess notation is how to express the different squares on the chess board. The chess board is broken up into 64 squares. Each square is uniquely identified by one of eight letters (column), followed by one of eight numbers (row). The letters run from a to h, starting on the left from white’s perspective. The numbers run from 1 to 8 starting on the bottom from white’s perspective. The horizontal rows of squares are called ranks, and the vertical columns of squares are called files.
Below you can see an example chess board with some squares labelled. If you want to test your understanding now, try thinking of the labels for the squares that the black knights start on, and the labels for the squares that they can move to. You should be able to use the image below to check your answers.
The coordinates minigame is a useful tool for getting comfortable with square identification.
Each type of chess piece, with the exception the pawn, is identified by a unique letter abbreviation. The abbreviations for each chess piece are as follows: R for rook, N for knight, B for bishop, Q for queen, and K for king. Pawns are identified by the absence of a capital letter.
Each move, with the exception of castling moves, is recorded by an uppercase letter representing the piece as well as the row and column of the destination square. For example, to move a knight to c6, you type Nc6. To move the queen to a4, you type Qa4. No letter is used to indicate a pawn; for a pawn move, you simply type the destination square. For example, to move a pawn to e5, you type e5.
1. c4 Nc6 2. Qa4 e5
When multiple pieces of the same type can move to the same square, the piece you intend to move must be uniquely identified. This is done by adding information on the piece’s starting coordinates, after its identifying letter.
If the piece you want to move can be uniquely identified by its starting file (column), then that should take precedence. For example, if both your knights can move to d8, and you want to move your knight currently placed on the c-file, you type Ncd8.
If both pieces have the same starting file, but different ranks (row), then the rank should be used to identify which piece you want to move. For example, if both your rooks can move to h6 because they are both on the h-file, and you want to move your rook currently placed on 8th rank, you type R8h6.
If neither the file nor the rank is sufficient to identify the piece, then both must be used. This is a very unlikely occurrence, but can happen after one or more pawns have been promoted. For example if you have queens at a3, c3, and c1, and you want to take the queen from c3 to a1, you type Qc3a1.
Ncd8 - R8h6 - Qc3a1
When capturing an opponent's piece, an 'x' is inserted before the destination coordinates. For example, to capture a piece on b8 using your bishop, you enter Bxb8. To capture a piece using your pawn, you must specify its starting file. For example, to capture a piece on d4 using a pawn on c5, you type cxd4.
1. d4 d5 2. Bf4 c5 3. Bxb8 cxd4
When capturing a pawn en passant (e.p.), your destination is the square behind the pawn that just moved. For example, to capture a pawn on e5 e.p. using a pawn on d5, you type dxe6.
1. d4 h6 2. d5 e5 3. dxe6
Castling uses special notation. To castle kingside you type O-O or 00, and to castle queenside you type O-O-O or 000.
1. d4 e5 2. Be3 Bb4+ 3. Nc3 Nf6 4. Qd2 O-O (00) 6. O-O-O (000)
In order to upgrade your pawn when you reach the 8th rank while playing as white, or the 1st rank while playing as black, you enter the move as normal and append an equal sign followed by the piece you've chosen to upgrade to at the end. For example, in order to upgrade a pawn on h7 to a queen, you enter h8=Q.
74... Ra1 75. h8=Q
Check & Checkmate
If a move places your opponent’s king in check, a '+' is appended to the end of the move. If it places your opponent’s king in checkmate, a '#' is appended to the end instead. For example, to move your queen to h4, leaving your opponent in checkmate, you can type Qh4#.
1. f3 e6 2. g4 Qh4#
Variants of Algebraic Notation
There are some slight variations on algebraic notation, which are all mutually intelligible. So once you understand standard algebraic notation (or one of the variants) all of the other variants should be fairly easy to understand as well.
The main variants all follow the International Chess Federation standards, and are called standard algebraic notation (SAN). One form of SAN is called long algebraic notation (LAN), which is a form of algebraic notation that includes the starting file and rank of the piece, even when it is not necessary to disambiguate the move. Another form of SAN is short algebraic notation, which is the most commonly used form, and the main focus of this tutorial. It only records the starting file and rank of a piece when not doing so would cause confusion. The third form of SAN is called minimal algebraic notation (MAN), which is the same as short algebraic notation except that it omits certain details such as captures ('x'), checks ('+'), and checkmates ('#').
Occasionally you may encounter a form of algebraic notation in which each chess piece is denoted by small image rather than the usual letter abbreviation. This is known as figurine algebraic notation (FAN). Besides denoting each chess piece by an image, it is identical to algebraic notation.
Because different languages have different words for each of the chess pieces, the letters used to identify them in algebraic notation also vary. For example, in German, the king, queen, rook, bishop, knight, and pawn are called könig, dame, turm, läufer, springer, and bauer, respectively. So, in Germany, the symbols used to represent the pieces are: K, D, T, L, and S, with pawns again being represented by no letter.
You can find a complete list of the different symbols used to represent pieces in different languages here.
Portable Game Notation
Another form of chess notation is portable game notation, or PGN. This is simply a way to take each of the chess moves in a game using algebraic notation (with English piece names), and compile them into a whole game.
PGN data also includes information about the match, in "tags", which are pieces of information enclosed in brackets at the start of the file. The seven required tags are:
- Event: The name of the tournmanet or event where the match took place.
- Site: The location of the event.
- Date: The starting date of the game.
- Round: The round of the game within the event.
- White: The name of the player with the white pieces
- Black: The name of the player with the black pieces
- Result: The result of the game.
Portable game notation may also include tags with other information such as the number of moves played, the time controls used, the way the game ended, and whether the game was played over the board or online, just to name a few. For a more complete list, check out the wikipedia entry on PGN here.
Portable game notation is designed for recording games in a format that is easy for both humans and computers to understand. You can enter a PGN file into a chess engine or other piece of chess software that can read PGN data.
Universal Chess Interface
Universal Chess Interface (UCI) is a form of algebraic notation which omits piece names and includes both coordiantes of the starting square. For example, in UCI notation, 1.Nf3 becomes 1.g1f3.
UCI is most commonly used in order to allow communication between chess engines and user interfaces.
Descriptive notation has historically been the most popular form of chess notation in the English speaking world, but these days it is rare, since it was largely replaced by algebraic notation in the early 1980s. Descriptive notation is useful to know for anyone who wants to read old chess books.
Descriptive notation uses the same letters as algebraic notation to identify each piece, with the exception of the pawn, which is denoted by a capital P. Where descriptive notation differs most from algebraic notation is in the names of the squares. Recall that in algebraic notation, squares are identified by a pair of coordinates given by a letter for the column and a number for the row. In the case of descriptive notation, the number stays the same, but the letter is replaced by the letter identifying the piece that starts on that column. The other major difference is that white and black have different coordinates for the same squares. So for example, the white would list the squares on the bottom row (the row closest to white) as follows:
QR1 QN1 QB1 Q1 K1 KB1 KN1 KR1
But black would list those same squares as:
QR8 QN8 QB8 Q8 K8 KB8 KN8 KR8
You can find a full baord with the squares all labelled from both black and white's perspective here.
There are other minor differences between descriptive notation and algebraic notation. For example, non-capturing moves include a dash between the piece name and the destination square, and promotions are denoted by appending the promotion piece to the end of a move in parentheses instead of after an equals sign, as is the convention in algebraic notation. So for example, in descriptive notation, h8=Q is written as P-KR8(Q) from white's perspective, and P-KR1(Q) from black's perspective.
ICCF Numeric Notation
In international correspondence chess, piece names are avoided due to the fact that different languagues use different letters to specify the pieces. In addition, some players may be unfamiliar with the latin alphabet, so the standard coordinates cannot be used. To get around these issues, correspondence chess players use ICCF notation, which uses only numbers to describe each move. In ICCF notation, piece names are not mentioned, and coordinates of the squares are given by a pair of numbers, rather than the usual letter+number pair. For example, in ICCF notation, the move 1.e4 becomes 1.5254.
As correspondence chess has largely moved away from mail and towards online play, ICCF numeric notation has fallen out of favour.
Forsythe Edwards Notation (FEN)
Unlike the other forms of chess notation we have discussed in this tutorial, FEN is not used to describe chess moves, but rather the state of a chess board.
In Forsythe Edwards Notation, the white pieces are denoted by the same capital letters as in algebraic notation, with the excpetion of the pawn, which is denoted by a capital P. The black pieces are then denoted by the corresponding lowercase versions of each letter.
Each rank is specified, starting at the top of the board, with ranks separated by slashes. Empty squares are denoted by a number, which corresponds to the number of consecutive empty squares. So for aexample, an empty rank is simply given by /8/, whereas a rank with 3 empty squares, a black pawn, and then 4 empty squares would be given by /3p4/.
FEN also includes some other information following the string specifying the state of the board, separated by spaces.
Immediately following the string specifying the state of the board is either a w or a b, to specify which player gets to make the next move. A w means white moves next, and a b means black moves next.
The next piece of information is castling availability. This is a short string containing up to 4 letters. A K means white can castle kingside, a Q means white can castle queenside, a k means black can castle kingside, and finally a q means black can castle queenside. If neither player has the ability to castle, this field will simply contain a "-".
After the castling information, there is en passant information. If a pawn moved 2 squares in the previous turn, then the square that it passed over (the en passant target square) will be listed in algebraic notation. If there is no en passant target square, then a "-" is listed instead.
Next, there is a counter for the number of halfmoves that have passed since the last capture or pawn advance. This is used for the fifty-move rule.
Finally there is a number specifying the number of full moves. It begins at 1 and increments after each of black's moves.
So for example, the FEN for the Ruy Lopez opening looks like: r1bqkbnr/pppp1ppp/2n5/1B2p3/4P3/5N2/PPPP1PPP/RNBQK2R b KQkq - 3 3
Many forms of chess notation will include annotations, which provide the reader with an editorial comment on a move or position. The following is a brief list of some of the most common forms of annotation that you are likely to encounter:
- !: a very good move
- !!: a brilliant move
- ?: a bad move
- ??: a blunder
- !?: an interesting move
- ?!: a dubious move
- =: equal chances for both black and white
- +/=: white has a small advantage
- =/+: black has a small advantage
- +/-: white has a clear advantage
- -/+: black has a clear advantage
These symbols are fairly subjective, but the general ordering for the move annotations is as follows:
!! > ! > !? > ?! > ? > ??
You can find a more complete list of annotation symbols and a discussion of their meanings here.
Give It a Try
That's all! It's easier than it looks. We hope that this tutorial gave you the tools you need to get started on your chess-improvement journey. Knowing algebraic chess notation will allow you to play chess by text and move the board from the physical realm to your imagination. Let's get started with your first game.