Understanding chess notation – an easy guide

Understanding chess notation is easy once you get the hang of it.
Understanding chess notation – sample page from a chess book.


Understanding chess notation is important because it is the language used to play and study the royal game. Algebraic notation is the accepted language of chess. All modern chess books since 1980 are written in this format. Database software like Chessbase or Chess Assistant use this too.

Older forms of chess notation

Descriptive notation

Prior to 1980, descriptive notation (DN) was used to record chess games. The problem with this notation was that it was often ambiguous and difficult to read. For example, the move P-K4 could refer to two algebraic squares: e4 or e5. It depends on what side of the board is making the move. Additionally, DN requires more writing. Even pawn moves have to be written out with the “P” in front of the squares it is going to.

I mention DN because chess books written before 1980 use this format. Most of the good ones have been republished with algebraic notation editions but some have not. If you are interested in understanding how to read descriptive notation, please click here.

Figurine notation

Some books, past and present, use figurine notation (FAN). This is a hybrid of algebraic notation where pieces are used instead of letters. This helps to address language barriers and the translations associated with the letters of eache piece. For example:

♘f3 ♞c6 is used in place of Nf3 and Nc6

Pieces and their symbols

N = Knight
B = Bishop
R = Rook
Q = Queen
K = King

What about the pawn? The pawn does not have an abbreviation. So, instead of Pe4, it’s simply e4.

Some examples:

e4 – the pawn moves to the e4 square.
cd4 – the c-pawn captures the d4 pawn.
Bb4 – the bishop moves to the b4 square.
Nbd7 – to avoid ambiguity, it’s important to be clear as to which knight you’re moving.
N3d4 – same scenario as the last but this means the knight on the 3rd rank moves to d4.
Rbd1 – the rook on b1 moves to d1. If either rook can occupy a particular square, you need to specify which rook to move.
a8(Q) – a pawn moves from a7 to a8 and promotes to a Queen.

Other symbols

O-O – indicates kingside castling.
O-O-O – indicates queenside castling.
1-0 – White wins.
0-1 – Black wins.
! – a good move.
!! – an excellent move.
!? – an interesting move.
?! – a dubious move.

+ means check. So Bb4+ means you have moved your bishop to the b4 square and placed your opponents king in check. Normally, this symbol is optional but some books call it out.

# – checkmate. Rd1# means you have delivered checkmate with your rook to the opposing king. This sometimes is helpful when recording a game because someone can quickly glance at the score sheet and recognize the game ended in a forced mate rather than a resignation.

x – indicates a capture. So Bxd7 means the bishop takes a piece on d7. Usually, the use of the capture symbol is considered unnecessary but some books use it to clarify a move.

Understanding chess notation is the first step on your journey towards better chess!

For more information on understanding chess notation, please visit the Wikipedia entry here. To play through an example, click here. Below is a typical game using algebraic notation.

(454) Shokoh-Alai,Davar (1750) – Paul (1814) [B34]
Microsoft Chess Club G45, 27.07.2004

1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 g6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Bg7 5.Be3 Nc6 6.c3 Nf6 7.Bd3 0–0 8.0–0 d5 9.Nxc6 bxc6 10.exd5 cxd5 11.h3 e5 12.Bc5 Re8 13.Bb5 Bd7 14.Ba4 Bxa4 15.Qxa4 Qc7 16.Ba3 Rad8 17.Nd2 Nd7 18.Nb3 Nb6 19.Qa5 Qb8 20.Bc5 Rd7 21.Qb4 Qc7 22.Nd2 Rc8 23.Be3 d4 24.cxd4 exd4 25.Bg5 Nd5 26.Qb3 h6 27.Bh4 Qf4 28.Nf3 Qf5 29.Rad1 Nf4 30.Rd2 d3 31.Rfd1 Nxh3+ 32.gxh3 Qxf3 33.Rxd3 Rxd3 34.Rxd3 Rc1+ 35.Rd1 Qxd1+ 36.Qxd1 Rxd1+


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