Back to Basics: Notation

By National Master Evan Rabin 

Chess notation is a system to document chess games, based on coordinates. I teach beginners board geography before piece movement. This allows a student to say “e4”, rather than “move the fifth pawn from the left side two squares.”

A chess board has 64 squares. There are three different types of lines on the board: files, ranks and diagonals:

  • Files: the columns that all have letters, from “a” to “h”.
  • Ranks: the rows that all have numbers, from “1” to “8”.
  • Diagonals: slanted lines of the board, can be specified by the first and last square (i.e, “a1-h8”)

To name a chess square, you write the letter of the file and then the number of the rank.  For instance, in the beginning of a chess game, the white queen starts on “d1”.

Next you need to the know the symbols of the pieces:

  • Pawn: No Symbol
  • Bishop: B
  • Knight: N (“K”is reserved for the more important piece that starts with the same letter.) 
  • King: K
  • Queen: Q
  • Rook: R

To write a chess move, you always need to write down three items:

         A) Piece     B) File       C)  Rank

The piece symbol should be capatalized and the file letter should be lowercase.

For a pawn move, you just write down the name of the square (file and rank).

One just needs to write down the name of the square a piece is going to, not where it came from. However, occasionally there will be times when two pieces of the same type can go to to the same square. In that case you need to specific which file or rank the piece came from. For instance, in this case, to write down a rook move by white, one needs to write down either “Rfe1” or “Rae1″:

Lastly one needs to know the ‘special symbols’:

Captures: x

Check: +

Checkmate: ++ or #

Castling: 0-0 for kingside or 0-0-0 for queenside

On a scoresheet, there is three parts:

  1. Header with game information: players, date, tournament name, Etc. I always recommend students fill out the information its entirety.
  2. White Column on Left Side: All White moves go here
  3. Black Column on Right Side: All Black moves go here

One common mistake beginners will do is only writing down their moves and not their opponents. Of course it’s hard to review a game afterward if only half of the moves played in the game are written down.

To avoid falling behind in notation, the first step of our thought process is to write down your opponent’s move, before starting to consider your move. Then you should write down your move right after playing it. 

That said, if one does ever fall behind in notation, he could either ask borrow his opponent’s scoresheet or skip a line and continue notating from there.

There are four main reasons it is important to understand notation:

  1. Both US Chess and FIDE (the international chess organization) require it.
  1. By notating, players automatically slow down and make better moves. Several years ago I was coaching a student at the Nationals and won a trophy with 5-2 score. For the five games he won, his notation was perfect. For the two games he lost, his notation was undecipherable.
  1. Notation serves as a player’s proof; one can not make many claims, like a win on time in a non-sudden death time control, three-fold repetition, 50-move rule, etc. without proper notation.
  1. It is important to notate and learn from one’s games. I have read very few chess books cover-to-cover in my life, most of which I discussed in this blog post. However, I have played in 977+ tournaments and have analyzed every one of my games.
  2. Without a knowledge of chess notation, it is impossible to read chess books. It is worth noting that I described algebraic notation in this post, which is used by 90%+ of chess players and 100% of authors today. Some old-school players use descriptive notation, which you will need to know if you want to read some old out-of-print books.

Knowing chess notation is essentially as important as understanding piece movement; it’s part of the ‘ABCs’ of chess. Read this blog post, practice notating a few games and you will soon become an expert at it and ready to improve in chess.

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