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On the Development of Chess Notation

Chess is considered one of the world’s oldest games, at least of the games that are still played today. It is said to have originated from ancient India and dates back to around 600AD. Since then, the game has evolved to the version we know today. The world evolved too and inventions such as the transistor were made. Partially, the transistor was a useful development for chess as it gave rise to epic chess computers, but is was not the most useful development for chess of the past 14 centuries. The development of writing allowed for the meticulous notation of chess matches which in turn allowed the great masters to improve their chess skills by evaluating matches.

The first known notation of a chess match dates back to 9th century Arabia[1]. It did take a lot longer before chess notation became more standardised and useful. The first more understandable notations are known as ‘descriptive notation’. An example of a 17th century descriptive notation would be: “The white king commands his owne knight into the third house before his owne bishop.”[2]. Chess is known not to be a very fast game, but writing an entire paragraph for one move is too slow. Therefore, this notation was condensed down to “N-KB3” in its most modern form. This type of descriptive notation was used until the 1970’s when it was replaced by the current (default) notation known as ‘Algebraic notation’. This form was actually invented before modern day descriptive notation but did not reach the general public only because the inventor of descriptive notation, Andre Philidor, won a game of chess over the inventor of algebraic notation, Philipp Stamma. This victory meant that Philidor’s book on chess gained more popularity, and thus his method of notation remained the standard over the superior algebraic notation.

Algebraic notation

The beauty of algebraic notation is that it is a concise and standardised method of recording chess moves. In fact the current day format ‘standard algebraic notation’ is not very different from the original notation devised by Stamma. It divides the chessboard like a table where rows are ranks which are labeled with numbers 1 through 8 and columns are files labeled with letters A through H. This creates an easy coordinate system to specify squares on the board with the origin in the lower-left, from the white player’s point-of-view. Pieces are indicated with letters representing their names (which may vary between languages): K for king, Q for queen, R for rook, B for bishop, and N for knight. Here, N is a substitute as the letter K was already occupied for the king and pawns get no indication. A move is then noted as: Nf3 for the previous example, where N indicates the knight which moves to square f31.

There are also notation for other actions in the game: ‘x’ for captures, ‘0-0’ or ‘0-0-0’ for (queen side) castling or ‘a8Q’ where a pawn in square a8 is promoted to queen. Notations also exist for the game state: ‘+’ for check, ‘#’ for checkmate and ‘=’ for a draw offer.

With this method of making notes, it is easy for the players to keep note of the match they are playing. Afterwards, these notes can provide great learning insights as matches can be played again to discover better moves. Alternatively, the notes can be used to resolve disputes between players during competition matches.

Digital notation

Whilst algebraic notation can be useful for human players, it still lacks information when one wants to display a chessboard in a digital way. The computer could use the moves to determine the current board’s layout, but that would be convoluted. Instead, a method is desired which represents the current state of the board and possible other information. This method, known as Forsyth–Edwards Notation (FEN), does just that, it provides all the required information to restart a game from a particular position.

FEN can be represented as a single line of characters:

rnbqkbnr/pppppppp/8/8/8/8/PPPPPPPP/RNBQKBNR w KQkq - 0 1

Which represents the starting position of a standard chess game. All characters before the first space describe the location of all the pieces on the board, where capital letters represent white pieces and lower-case letters the black pieces. A ‘/’ represents moving to a new rank and a number indicates the number of empty squares. The character after the first space indicates which colour moves next. The next sequence of characters indicates the possibility to castle, where ‘k’ represents the kingside and ‘q’ the queenside. Again, there is a distinction between upper- and lowercase characters. The dash indicates that there are no possibilities for ‘en passant’ captures. The final two numbers represent the half- and fullmove count respectively and serve to determine a tie situation.

With this information, one can effortlessly continue a chess game from any situation. The same goes for a computer which can now easily represent the current game and convert it to an image, for example using the fen-to-image website.

This FEN notation has been combined with algebraic notation to create a representation of a chessboard and following moves, known as Portable Game Notation (PGN, not to be confused with the common file extension PNG). This plain-text format is the most popular digital format for representing chess matches and has been created by Steven Edwards in 1993[3]. The format includes some header information about the match and the participants and can include a starting position in FEN-format and a number of moves in (adapted) algebraic notation, separated by move numbers.

[Event "The Chess Amateur"]
[Site "?"]
[Date "1922.??.??"]
[Round "?"]
[White "Ottó Bláthy"]
[Black "Reader"]
[Result "1-0"]
[SetUp "1"]
[FEN "8/8/8/2p5/1pp5/brpp4/qpprpK1P/1nkbn3 w KQkq - 0 1"]

1. Kxe1 Qa1 2. h3 Qa2 3. h4 Qa1 4. h5 Qa2 5. h6 Qa1 6. h7 Qa2 7. h8=N Qa1 8.
Nf7 Qa2 9. Nd8 Qa1 10. Ne6 Qa2 11. Nxc5 Qa1 12. Ne4 Qa2 13. Nd6 Qa1 14. Nxc4
Qa2 15. Na5 Qa1 16. Nxb3# 1-0

This PGN notation can be applied in a range of digital applications, including this website, to allow players to explore (a series of) moves. Hopefully, the knowledge on this powerful chess tool will help improve your chess play. If not, you at least enjoyed a Vonk-website exclusive article.

[Event "The Chess Amateur"] [Site "?"] [Date "1922.??.??"] [Round "?"] [White "Ottó Bláthy"] [Black "Reader"] [Result "1-0"] [SetUp "1"] [FEN "8/8/8/2p5/1pp5/brpp4/qpprpK1P/1nkbn3 w KQkq - 0 1"] 1. Kxe1 Qa1 2. h3 Qa2 3. h4 Qa1 4. h5 Qa2 5. h6 Qa1 6. h7 Qa2 7. h8=N Qa1 8. Nf7 Qa2 9. Nd8 Qa1 10. Ne6 Qa2 11. Nxc5 Qa1 12. Ne4 Qa2 13. Nd6 Qa1 14. Nxc4 Qa2 15. Na5 Qa1 16. Nxb3# 1-0


[1]: David Hooper, Kenneth Whyld, “The Oxford Companion to Chess (2nd ed.)”, Oxford University Press, 1996, ISBN 0-19-280049-3.

[2]: Saul, Arthur. “The famous game of chesse-play truely discouered, and all doubts resolued; so that by reading this small booke thou shalt profit more then by the playing a thousand mates. An exercise full of delight; fit for princes, or any person of what qualitie soeuer.”, 1614, Published by A. S. Gent.

[3]: Mark Weeks, “The Rise of Internet Chess”, Chess for all Ages, https://www.mark-weeks.com/aboutcom/aa07e19.htm (accessed 10-11-2019).

  1. Sometimes two of the same pieces can move to the same square in which case origin file and rank might be included to remove the disambiguation. ↩︎