Understanding Descriptive Notation

Gone But Not Forgotten

by Michael Basman (September 2020)

The descriptive notation is not as accurate as the algebraic, but it’s pretty simple to use and most books written in English (and American) used this notation up to 1970.

The first thing you realise is that each square has two names, depending on whose move it is. If it’s a white move the square his king is on is K1 (king – one), and the square the black king is on is K8 (king – eight). If it’s black’s move, then it’s the other way round – K1 becomes K8, and vice versa. The other thing you notice is the board is divided into two halves – the queen side and the king side; and the third thing is the squares are named after the piece’s that stand on them at the beginning of the game.

Chess square names – written in red from white’s perspective, and written in blue from black’s perspective

So QN1 stands for “queen’s knight’s one”, the square the queen’s knight stands on at the beginning of the game. So the descriptive notation is specifically linked to chess, whereas the algebraic could be used for any game – scrabble even.

Another thing to remember is that when you capture in descriptive notation, you name the piece you capture; this can be tricky when a queen could capture 8 different pawns – so you might have to write QxQNP (Queen takes queen’s knight’s pawn) instead of QxP, which could be ambiguous.

Did I say that each square in the Descriptive notation has two different names? – Well actually, due to longhand and shorthand, it’s more like four!

An illustrative game may help us here:

Algebraic

  1. e4 e5
  2. Nf3 Nc6
  3. Bc4 Nf6
  4. Ng5 d5
  5. exd5 Nxd5
  6. Nxf7 Kxf7
  7. Qf3+ Ke8
  8. Bxd5 Nd4
  9. Qf7++

Descriptive

  1. P-K4 P-K4
  2. N-KB3 N-QB3
  3. B-B4 N-B3
  4. N-N5 P-Q4
  5. PxP NxP
  6. NxBP KxN
  7. Q-B3+ K-K1
  8. BxN N-Q5
  9. Q-B7 mate

Let’s have a slo-mo analysis of this game.

  1. P-K4 P-K4

Well that was quite easy, the white pawn went four squares in front of the white king, and the black pawn went four squares in front of black’s king.

2. N-KB3 N-QB3

Now the fun begins: you have to check whether the other knight can get to the bishop three square (it can on the queen’s side!) so you can write N-KB3 to show the difference; and the opposite applies to black’s move.

3. B-B4

Now you’d look around to see if your other bishop can get to KB4 (king’s bishop four). It actually can’t move at all, so instead of writing B-QB4, you save a letter by writing B-B4.

3… N-B3

And now, instead of writing in full N-KB3, you simply write N-B3, since the other knight is already on QB3.

4. N-N5

N-N5 or N-KN5; easy the other knight can’t get to QN5, so you omit the extra letter.

4… P-Q4

Only one pawn can get to this square – no ambiguity.

5. PxP

And there’s only one possible pawn capture here.

5… NxP

Same goes for black’s move – it’s perfectly clear.

6. NxBP

But here white’s knight could also have taken the pawn on KR7, so you need to differentiate.

6… KxN
7. Q-B3 ch

The queen cannot get to the QB3 square, so here you used the shortened format. ‘ch’ indicates a check.

7… K-K1
8. BxN

This describes only one possible bishop capture.

8… N-Q5

Again, while there are always two possible R, N, and B files there are only one of the queen (Q) and king (K) files.

9. Q-B7 mate.

The queen could not have reached the QB7 square, so we write the shortened version – Q-B7, not Q-KB7. ‘mate’ indicates a checkmate.

Position after 1… P-K4 (diagram courtesy of chess.com)
Position after 3. B-B4 (diagram courtesy of chess.com)
Position after 4. N-N5 (diagram courtesy of chess.com)
Position after 5… NxP (diagram courtesy of chess.com)
Position after 7. Q-B3 ch (diagram courtesy of chess.com)
Final position (diagram courtesy of chess.com)

Further Notes

In the algebraic notation, you tend to only have ambiguous moves with two pieces – rooks and knights – for example, after the moves, 1.d4, d5 2. c4, e6 3.Nc3, Nf6 4. Bg5, Nd7 is ambiguous, so you would have to write Nbd7, (the knight from the b file goes to d7) to show which knight it was.

As already discussed, with descriptive notation, you may have to check for ambiguity for nearly every piece and every move.

Position after 4. Bg5 (diagram courtesy of chess.com)

For example, you have a knight that you want to move to QB3. If your other knight can get to KB3, you have to write N-QB3 (the long format) to distinguish it clearly. If you don’t have another knight, or it can’t go to KB3, you would write the short form, N-B3, not N-QB3. Similarly with you bishop. You may have to check whether you should write B-N5 or B-QN5.

The most annoying thing about the descriptive notation comes in the endgame. If you’re writing a book, and the few pieces on the board are fighting over the Q5 square, you may have to write black’s Q5 or White’s Q5, so readers will know exactly which square you are talking about.

In terms of accuracy, the algebraic is streets ahead; would you compose a geographical map based on the co-ordinates of the land, or on the people who keep moving around the globe? It’s a no-brainer, because one is static, the other a moving target.

But a lot of people like the descriptive as it is more humane and personal, and besides, all the great books of the last century were written in this form.

For the superbrains of the world – who are always chess players – this notation, however is a complete doddle, and a source of pride if you can master it!

Enjoy!

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