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How to Read and Write Chess Notation

How to Read and Write Chess Notation

How to Read and Write Chess Notation

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.

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.

Chess Board

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.

A chess board labelled with ranks and files

The coordinates minigame is a useful tool for getting comfortable with square identification.

Chess Pieces

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.

Chess Moves

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)

Pawn Promotion

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 easy to grasp once you can read and write any one of them.

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.

Portable Game Notation

Another form of chess notation is portable game notation, or PGN. This is simply a way to take all of the chess moves in a game using algebraic notation, and compile them into a whole game. Portable game notation may also include some extra information such as the date, the name of the tournament or match event, the result of the game, the names of the players, and their respective ELO scores.

Portable game notation is designed for recording games in a format that is easy for both humans and computers to understand. You can enter PGN file into a chess engine or other piece of chess software that can read PGN data.

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.