Chess Notation: Step-by-step Guide For Beginners

How Does Chess Notation Work?

  • Chess notation combines the chess piece moved with the new square it has moved to, on the chessboard.
  • Chess notation uses abbreviations for each piece, using capitalized letters.
  • King = K, Queen = Q, Bishop = B, Knight = N, Rook = R, Pawn = no notation.
  • Capturing an enemy piece sees an “x” placed between the piece moved and the square the captured piece was upon.
  • When the opponent’s king is threatened by check, a “+” sign is added to the end of the notation.
  • Castling kingside is written as “0-0”. Castling queenside is notated with “0-0-0”.

Knowing chess notations will allow you to study the famous games of years gone by and it will also allow you to follow along in instructional lessons such as those offered by ichess.net.

You can’t learn from a teacher unless you speak their language, and chess notation has become the lingua franca of the Royal Game.

Showing how important learning notation is GM Susan Polgar starts her highly-acclaimed beginner’s chess course by covering this subject.

Why Use Chess Notation?

Competitive chess games, even at a low level, require players to write down their moves using chess notation. However, you may ask yourself why you need this descriptive notation at all. When you play other board games, you don’t notate your moves!

There are several reasons in chess, however, that makes it obvious as to why it is so useful. The most apparent reason is that you are not allowed to participate in chess tournaments if you do not know how to notate correctly.

Why is that? If there is a problem in a game or a dispute, the arbiter, who is there to help you in these cases, must be aware of the progression of the game. It makes it easier for any arbiter to look at a scoresheet, which is clear evidence than to rely on the memory of the players.

Chess Notation Helps You Improve

Chess Notation: Step-by-step Guide For Beginners

Another reason to use chess notation is that you can use your records to review the critical moments of your games and analyze where you could have done better.

If you are serious about improving, you should do this every time you play. Just like football players talk about and reflect on their previous matches, a chess player has to analyze their games constantly to advance their skills.

All games of chess contain a lesson, but you can only extract this if you have the game documented. The shortest pen is longer than the longest memory.

For players who frequently participate in tournaments, it even makes sense to use their notations to save their games in chess databases. If you have saved your games in a database, e.g. in the famous ChessBase, you even have the option to analyze your games with the assistance of a chess engine.

Further, not understanding chess notation is the mark of a real beginner. It is the equivalent of asking whether three-of-a-kind beats two pairs while sitting at a poker table at the casino (incidentally, it does).

Such ignorance of the basics instantly betrays a lack of knowledge to everybody else. This isn’t the vibe you want to be giving off before going into battle.

Chess itself takes a lifetime to master, but chess notation only needs a few minutes and this article will explain everything to do with the algebraic chess notation – the most common form of modern chess notation.

Chess Board Numbers

Letter and number system chess notation

Let’s have a look at the concrete rules of chess notation. Firstly, you have to know how the chess board is constructed.

The squares are allocated names using a coordinate system. Thus, every square gets a unique letter and number, in a grid formation.

From left-to-right from White’s perspective, the squares are ordered alphabetically with letters from “a” through to “h”.

From Black’s point of view, the squares are in reverse alphabetical order – Black’s left-most squares are “h” squares, and Black’s right-most squares are “a” squares.

Each square also gets a unique number, from “1” to “8”. The rank closest to the White player in the initial setup are “1” squares, the next rank the “2” squares and so on… to the rank closest to Black, which are “8” squares.

With this grid information, we have everything we need to give all 64 squares a unique identifier using one letter and one number to combine its up-down orientation and its left-right orientation, per the diagram below. For more on how to setup a chess board, click here.

Chess board coordinates

Chess board square notation. White will set up on the bottom of the board, Black sets up on the top. Image from Dummies.com

The Chess Pieces

Chess Notation: Step-by-step Guide For Beginners

Chess notation also uses abbreviations for each soldier in the army, using capitalized letters.

King       = K

Queen   = Q

Bishop   = B

Knight   = N

Rook      = R

Pawn     = no notation

The abbreviations are fairly straightforward to remember. In most cases, they are simply the first letter of the piece’s name.

There are two exceptions. Knights are abbreviated as “N” because “K” is already taken by the king.

Pawns aren’t assigned any capitalized letter – it would be more consistent if we used “P” for the pawn, but for some reason, we don’t… maybe to save ink. Pawn moves are indicated using only the square name.

Chess Notation in Different Languages

The algebraic notation most commonly seen is the English notation, but it isn’t the only notation used in every country. Here is how you might see algebraic notation used in French, German, and Spanish.

French: R roi (king) D dame (lady/queen) T tour (tower/rook) F fou (jester/bishop) C Cavalier (rider/knight) P pion (pawn)

German: K König (king) D Dame (lady/queen), T Turm (tower/rook) L Läufer (runner/bishop) S Springer (jumper/knight) B Bauer (peasant)

Spanish: R rey (king) D Dama / reina (lady/queen) T torre (tower/rook) A alfil (bishop) C caballo (horse/knight) P péon (foot soldier/pawn)

Reti Chess Notation post
Reti Opening

1.Nf3 Nf6 2.c4 c5 3.g3 g6 4.Bg2

Using the Reti Opening as an example you could see:

1.Cf3 Cf6 2.c4 c5 3.g3 g6 4.Fg2 in French

1.Sf3 Sf6 2.c4 c5 3.g3 g6 4.Lg2 in German

1.Cf3 Cf6 2.c4 c5 3.g3 g6 4. Ag2 in Spanish

Descriptive Notation

Chess players used descriptive notation before the modern algebraic notation. FIDE, the chess governing body, stopped recognizing it in 1981.

The board was divided into two sides – the queenside and the kingside. The chess pieces on the queenside were given the letter “Q” – QB for Queen’s Bishop – and those on the kingside with the letter “K” – KB for King’s Bishop.

In descriptive notation, you needed to count from either side of the chessboard. What we write as a8 today was either QR8 (queen rook 8) for White or QR1 (queen rook 1) for Black.

Because king and knight begin with the letter “k,” the knight was written with an N or in older chess literature Kt.

Castling notation stayed the same 0-0 (castles kingside or short castle) and 0-0-0 (castles queenside or long castle). When using the word castles, the rook was included to differentiate between queenside and kingside castle. For example, Castles KR for a short castle.

Algebraic notation makes use of the same symbols for capturing (x) and non-capturing moves (-). In descriptive notation, 1.Nf3 is 1.N-KB3 (knight to king’s bishop three).

A pawn advance is 1.P-K4 for 1.e4 or 1.P-QB4 for 1.c4. Interestingly enough, if Black chooses to play the Open Game, it was also written as 1…P-K4.

Thus 1.e4 e5 is 1.P-K4 P-K4

Pawn captures are written simply as PxP unless there were two possible pawn captures. Then the move would be written as NPxP or QPxP.

Putting It All Together

Chess notation combines the chess piece moved with the new square it has moved to on the chess board. A bishop moving to the c4 square is written as “Bc4”. A pawn moving to the e3 square is written as “e3” (remember, pawns have no capital letter). A queen moving to the a7 square is “Qa7”. You get the idea.

Moves are usually written in pairs, showing both the White and the Black move – for instance, 1. e4 Nf6 shows that White used its first move to push a pawn to e4, and Black responded by developing a knight to f6.

Chess Notation: Step-by-step Guide For Beginners
White’s bishop just moved to the square c4. Hence, the correct chess notation for this move is “Bc4”.

Captures

Capturing an enemy piece sees an “x” placed between the piece moved and the square the captured piece was upon. So, if a king captured a chess piece on e1, the notation would show “Kxe1”.

The pawn captures require us to show which file the capturing pawn came from – so a pawn which was on h3, capturing on g4 would be “hxg4”.

Chess Notation: Step-by-step Guide For Beginners
White’s knight just captured Black’s pawn on e5. The correct chess notation for this move is “Nxe5”.

Check and Checkmate

When the opponent’s king is threatened by check, a “+” sign is added to the end of the notation. A bishop capturing on f7 with check would be written as Bxf7+. Checkmate is denoted with either “++” or “#” (either is acceptable), followed by the result of the game (1-0 if White has won, 0-1 if Black has emerged triumphant, or 1/2 – 1/2 if it’s a draw).

Chess Notation: Step-by-step Guide For Beginners
White’ bishop just moved to b5, giving check. The correct chess notation for this move is “Bb5+”.

Castling

The notation for castling depends on which side of the board the king castled towards. Castling kingside (with the rook that begins on the “h” file), is written as “0-0”. Castling queenside (with the rook that begins on the “a” file) is notated with “0-0-0”.

Chess Notation: Step-by-step Guide For Beginners
White just castled. The correct chess notation for this move is “0-0”.

Pawn Promotion

If a pawn makes it all the way to the end of the board to promote to a new piece, add a “=” symbol, followed by the abbreviated capital letter of what it transformed into. For instance, promoting a pawn on the b8 square to a queen would be written as “b8=Q”.

Chess Notation: Step-by-step Guide For Beginners
White just promoted his a-pawn into a queen. The correct chess notation for this move is “a8=Q”.

This move is mentioned in Rule 7 on Chessable’s article 7 Special Chess Rules You May Not Know. We recommend checking this out for a better look at this move, in addition to getting familiar with other chess moves and names.

Removing Ambiguity

Occasionally, the situation arises where more than one of the same kind of piece could move to the target square. For example, if you have rooks on both a8 and c8, then either of them could move to b8.

Therefore, you need to note which piece was actually moved, so readers looking back in the future are not confused. This is done by adding a starting identifier in between the piece and the square. In this example, if the rook beginning on a8 were moved to b8, it would be written as “Rab8”.

Chess Notation: Step-by-step Guide For Beginners
White just moved his knight from b1 to d2. However, the knight from f3 could have also moved to d2. Hence, the correct chess notation for this move is “Nbd2”.

The Scoresheet – Where To Notate Your Moves?

Chess Notation: Step-by-step Guide For Beginners

The scoresheet is the place where each player must document his game. Furthermore, each player has to write down the names of both players, the name of the event with the number of the round, the date, result and, most importantly, all the moves that are made throughout the whole game. There are different scoresheets, but you can see an example on the right. 

Additional information that you notate on your scoresheet could be the time left on the clock if you are a player who often gets into time trouble.

Other notes could be concerning special claims during the game, very important – offers of a draw or other relevant data. Moreover, the scoresheet must be visible to the arbiter throughout the whole game.

If a player is not able to keep score, they must provide an assistant, accepted by the arbiter, to undertake the chess notation. If neither player notates the moves, such as in very fast time controls like Blitz, the arbiter or an assistant has to care for the scoresheet and the players must check it right after the game. When nobody has notated the moves, the players must reconstruct the game on a second board.

In the case of less than 5 minutes on the clock and without an addition of 30 seconds per move, a player doesn’t have the duty to write down any moves.

Another important rule is that you are not allowed to notate your move before you actually move the piece on the board. The reason for that is that your trainer could give you signs if that move is good or not which would be cheating.

At the end of a game, each player has to write down the result and sign both scoresheets to confirm his agreement.

Interpretations

Chess analysts may add exclamation marks and question marks to their reviews. It isn’t necessary to do this during the game – indeed, you shouldn’t, because whether a move is brilliant or not is often only revealed in hindsight!

!! – brilliant move

! – good move

? – bad move

?? – terrible move

!? – unusual move

?! – dubious move

In Summary: How Chess Notation Works

All these chess notation rules may look complicated at first glance and seem like a lot to take in, but after a little practice, how chess notation works will become natural, just like a musician reading sheet music.

Even if you are only playing friendly games, get into the habit of identifying chess pieces and squares now.

Furthermore, it’s always interesting to look back at games you played long ago – in years to come, you will wish you had your old games recorded. And by getting into practice now, you will be able to write down chess notation like a pro when you are ready to start playing at a club.

Therefore, a good idea, in the beginning, is to get some good chess equipment like an interesting chess DVD series for beginners to start your career!

Just visit our shop on ichess.net! Surely, you’ll find the one or another little treasure trove to start your training and improve your skills rapidly!

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