Chess Notation

by Olivia Smithies

If you want to learn to record your games so you can replay them later, or if your chess books look like gobbledegook to you, then keep reading, but if you just need a quick recap, read this post instead. The notation in this article is called algebraic notation. It is currently widely used and fairly simple, and I would always recommend this chess notation to beginners. For anyone attempting to read an older chess book, you may need to learn descriptive notation instead.


The Squares

There are 64 squares on the chess board: 32 identical white squares, and 32 identical black ones. The first thing to do, is learn how to tell them apart.

The most important thing to remember about chess notation, is that every square on the chess board has a name with one letter and one number: ‘a6’ for example or ‘e1’. If your chess board has letters and numbers on it, this will really help you, especially when starting out.

All squares next to ‘7’ marked through with a dotted red line are also called 7 – in order, ‘a7’, ‘b7’, ‘c7’, ‘d7’, ‘e7’ all the way to ‘f7’ which I have written in for you. Beyond f7, in the unmarked squares we have ‘g7’ and ‘h7’. In the same way, all the squares leading upwards from ‘b’, marked by a red dotted line, are also ‘b’ squares – ‘b1’, ‘b2’ and ‘b3’ (which I have written in), all the way up through ‘b7’ which you looked at a moment ago. This method of naming squares is similar to map coordinates.


Test yourself:

See if you can find ‘h8’, ‘d2’ and ‘g5’ in the diagram above.


The Pieces

So, you can figure out the names of the squares. What next? The pieces have names too, but just one letter each:

King

Queen

Rook

Bishop

Knight

K

Q

R

B

N

What about the pawns? Until we start capturing, the pawns are simple – just write down the square that the pawn moves to. Unless you are capturing, only 1 pawn will be able to move to a particular square. E.g. f3 (pawn moves to ‘f3’), or g7 (pawn moves to ‘g7’)

If you are using one the larger pieces, simply indicate the piece by naming the piece first, and writing the square second. E.g. Ng4 (Knight moves to ‘g4’) or Kf2 (King moves to ‘f2’)

It’s almost entirely that simple…

…the above will get you 90% of the way there, but of course, there are fiddly little bits you ought to know.


Capturing

When capturing a piece, you should use the letter ‘x’ to show you are making a capture. You place the ‘x’ in your notation as if you are saying it aloud to yourself. You do not need to write down which piece is being captured

Bxg5 (Bishop takes whatever piece is on g5)

Kxa4 (King takes whatever piece is on a4)

I mentioned earlier that pawns were a little bit more tricky, but only a little bit! The pawn adopts the letter of whichever file (column) it stands on. When you start your game, you have one pawn on each file (each letter, ‘a’ to ‘h’). If your pawn on ‘a’ takes a piece on ‘b4’, you write ‘axb4’. It could have captured another pawn or a bishop, or even the queen, but you only need to write ‘axb4’.

In this diagram ‘a1’ is the bottom left corner of the board. (diagram from chess.com)

In this diagram it is white’s turn. If they choose to capture black’s pawn, they would write:
cxd5

If they play a different move, for example e3 (moving the king’s pawn forward one square), then black could take the white pawn instead. Can you figure out what black would write?

TIP: In this diagram ‘a1’ is at the bottom left corner of the board.

The correct answer is:
dxc4

Why do you need to give the pawn a name? Why couldn’t the answer simply be ‘xc4’?

Well, two pawns may be able to make the same capture. Take a look at the diagram below.

In this diagram ‘a1’ is the bottom left corner of the board. (diagram from chess.com)

In this position it is white’s turn again. Either his ‘c’ pawn or his ‘e’ pawn could take the black pawn on d5 this time. If white chooses to capture, they should write either:
cxd5 or exd5

‘xd5’ could mean either pawn took. Even when there are no options, it is good to be thorough and indicate which file your pawn came from.


Castling

Don’t worry – castling is nice and simple.

In this diagram, white is able to castle on either side. If the king castles kingside, the notation is:
0-0

If the king castles queenside, the notation is:
0-0-0

This can be easily remembered by counting the squares between the King and the Rook. 2 squares – 2 0’s, 3 squares – 3 0’s.

(diagram from chess.com)


Ambiguous Moves

Ambig-u-what?

Basically, “what if two (or more!) of the same type of piece can move to the same square?”

In this position, white wants to move their knight to ‘b4’. Ah… But which one? Both white knights can move to the square ‘b4’. If white simply writes Nb4, when they play through the game later, it is likely they may have forgotten which knight they chose to move.

In these cases we need to look at the square the knights are currently on.

In this diagram ‘a1’ is the bottom left corner of the board. (diagram from chess.com)

One of the white knights is on a2, the other is on c2. In this example the only thing differentiating the current position of the knights is their file (letter). Their rank (number) is the same. Therefore, to determine which knight moves you should indicate what is unique about that piece, in this case, the file. If I were to move the knight on the left, I would record:
Nab4 (knight on ‘a’ to ‘b4’)

If I were to move the knight on the right:
Ncb4 (knight on ‘c’ to ‘b4’)

In this diagram ‘a1’ is the bottom left corner of the board. (diagram from chess.com)

QUIZ

Here is the diagram again. There are lots of ambiguous moves that can be made here. We found Nab4 and Ncb4 together. See if you can find all the other ambiguous moves for white and black.

Scroll to the bottom of the ambiguous moves section for the answers!

TIP: You need to particularly watch out for these ambiguous moves with the knights and the rooks, but don’t get complacent! You can get ambiguous queen and bishop moves as well if your pawn has been promoted.

Answers:

R1g2, R4g2

R1g3, R4g3

Ree8, Rge8 (R4e8 or R8e8 are also acceptable here. There is nothing in common about the rooks’ current position so either the file or the rank can be used to indicate which rook moves)

Rexg4, Rgxg4 (Think “Rook on ‘e’ takes ‘g4’.” As explained above, R4xg4 or R8xg4 are also acceptable)


Check and Checkmate

Back to something simple!

If you were playing a game, you make your move and then say “check!” or “checkmate!”. When we record, we punctuate our notation in the same way. You write your move first, and follow your recording with the appropriate symbol.

Check

Checkmate

+

++ or #

QUIZ

In this position white could play Qe1+ (Queen moves to ‘e1’ “check”). But perhaps they shouldn’t! Can you find all the other checks and checkmates instead? How would you record them?

Scroll for all the answers.

If white plays the move Qc3, this is not a check or a checkmate. White cannot use any symbols at all. It is, in fact, a stalemate. There are no symbols to declare this – you can just write ‘stalemate’ or ‘draw’ if you wish.

In this diagram ‘a1’ is the bottom left corner of the board. (diagram from chess.com)

Answers

Qb3+

Qa4+

Qg4+

Qd2++ or Qd2#

Qb1++ or Qb1#


Other little bits!

Pawn promotion

When you get another pawn to the other side of the board you should put ‘=’ and the piece you have chosen to promote to.

Examples:

e8=Q (move pawn to e8 and promote it to a queen)
d1=N (move pawn to d1 and promote it to a knight)
h8=R+ (move pawn to h8 and promote it to a rook with check)
bxc1=Q# (pawn on b captures piece on c1 and promotes it to a queen, checkmate)

En passant

When someone plays ‘en passant’ in chess, you capture a pawn as if it has only moved one square instead of two squares. This is how you record it as well, making a note of ‘e.p.’ as explanation.

In this diagram ‘a1’ is the bottom left corner of the board. (diagram from chess.com)

In this diagram, the game begun:
1. d4, Nc6
2. d5, c5

With their second move, black played his c pawn next to a pawn that has already moved up three squares. Here, white has an opportunity to play en passant, capturing as if the pawn only moved one square. The correct recording would be:
3. dxc6 e.p.

If you think that white just cheated, don’t worry, they didn’t! We will release an article on ‘en passant’ soon so you can perform similar magic tricks too!

‘!’ and ‘?’

You might have read through a chess book and seen certain moves punctuated with exclamation marks or question marks. ‘!’ means “a good move” and ‘?’ means a mistake. Multiply the symbols, and the more extreme the commentary. ‘!!’ is “fantastic” and “??” is a blunder. Where ‘?’ and ‘!’ are seen together, (eg. Nf1?!) the move is to be understood as a bit crazy, and it is not entirely clear whether it is good or bad.

No matter how brilliant your moves are, don’t start putting exclamation marks all over the place – leave that for your chess teacher!

Recording Paper

You’re ready to start! If you want to start writing your moves down, it is much easier to read through a game if the moves are numbered and in two columns. One column for white, and the other for black. If you would like to buy some formatted recording paper, below is the recording paper that I would recommend. While you are just starting out, keep this recording cheat sheet on hand to help you!

Ultimate Score Book

Want to record your tournament matches? This is for you. Comes with cardboard folders for storing your games.

6.50 £

Refill Pad for Ultimate Score Book

When you have run out of score sheets in your ‘Ultimate Score Book’ top it up with a refill pad.

4.00 £

The above prices include postage and packing to the UK. For bulk, or international orders, please contact us.

Happy recording!

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