How to Understand Algebraic Notation

"Notation" is a method in chess strategy books that is used to describe the movement of pieces on the chess board, without needing a visual diagram of the chess board for each move. It greatly increases a chess author's ability to describe a large number of chess games in compact form, leaving more room for game analysis. It also allows the author to concentrate on chess strategies and tactics, rather than requiring hundreds and hundreds of cumbersome diagrams of the chess board for each move.

If you are a chess player, aspiring to improve through strategy books, understanding the two chess notation styles is crucial to your improvement. Most chess strategy books are either written in "Descriptive Notation," or "Algebraic Notation."

Descriptive Notation, in general, was used in older chess books and magazines, although it is possible to run into more current chess literature using this notation style as well. Nevertheless, the fact that any book or magazine written before 1970 probaby uses descriptive notation makes it worth knowing.

However, Algebriac notation is the topic of our current discussion. Algebraic notation is the most widely used form of notation today, found on websites, in chess software, in chess books, magazines, and other literature. Understanding algebraic notation is crucial to your growth as a chess player.

I've posted a visual diagram of a chess board describing algebraic notation on my chess game strategies site. Scroll to the bottom, and click on the resources link to access the diagram.

In chess literature, the term "rank" refers to the rows of the chess board. "File" refers to the columns. If a chess book talks about the "1st rank" it means the "first row." The "a file" refers to the "a column."

In algebraic chess notation, each row (rank) of the chess board is assigned a number from 1 to 8, beginning with the white side. Each column (file) is described with a letter from a to h, going from left to right from the white side. Each square is described by a letter/number combination according to the intersection of the column and row that both contain that square. As you will see from the diagram on my website that I mentioned above, the uppermost square, farthest to the right a1. The lowermost square, farthest to the left is h8. (If you are sitting on the "white's" side of the board).

Each piece is denoted by a single letter: R for rook, N for knight, Q for Queen, and so on. A move is described by first listing the piece that is moving, then the square that it is moving to. In algebraic notation, the letter for pawn is always left out.

chess problem diagram

Examples: Nf6 means the knight moved to square f6. If you see f4 by itself, that means a pawn moved to f4.

You may ask, how can I tell if a white piece or a black piece is the one moving? This is a good question if you are just starting out, however, you will find that when you are reading algebraic notation of a game, following it move by move, it will be very clear which piece is moving because 1) most of the pieces can only move on certain squares of the board (for instance, the bishop must stay on its own colored squares) and 2) as you are following a game closely, you will find yourself remembering the positions of the pieces from move to move, and it will be clear which piece is the one moving, whether white or black.

However, there are times when, even given the above facts, it will be unclear which piece is moving. In this case, the file of the moving piece is inserted immediately after the letter describing that piece. For instance instead of Rb6, Rdb6 would be used to indicate that the rook in the d column (file) is the one that is moving to b6. In the event that the file is the same for both pieces, rank is used instead of file, again, immediately after the letter describing the piece that is moving.

Important notes: Castling is shown by O-O or O-O-O. Pawn promotion is described by adding the letter of the promoting piece to the move: f1Q means that the pawn moved to f1, and was promoted to a queen. Pawn promotion could also be described with an equal sign or a slash (f1/Q, or f1=Q). Capture and check are sometimes noted, but often they are simply implied by the square that the piece is moving to. When described, capture is denoted with a "x" (RxB7 means a rook moved to square B7 and captured a piece. Without the x, the capture is simply notead as Rb7). Check is described with a "+" as in Rf6+, which means that a rook moved to square f6 and gives check. Without the +, this move which gives check is simply Rf6. En passant with pawns is simply described by following the move with the letters "e. p."

The best way to become familiar with algebraic notation is to go to my chess strategies and chess tactics site http://www.chessvictory.com/, scroll to the bottom, and click on the resources link. On that page I've posted a diagram for the chessboard in algebraic notation, as well as part of a game written in algebraic notation. This partial game includes clear diagrams of the chess board to make it clear which piece is moving. Once you get the hang of what the symbols mean, I'd encourage you to find some sample games written in algebraic notation and sit down with a real, physical chess board and go through the whole game, moving the pieces as the notation describes. After doing th at a few times you'll find yourself more comfortable with this style of notation than you imagined! In fact you'll get so good at it that you can read it as fast as you are reading this sentence, and you'll see the movements of the pieces clearly in your mind!

Author: Chad Kimball

Chad Kimball publishes chess instruction books and courses on the Internet. He is responsible for bringing an exciting resource to the Internet: "The Grandmaster Strategy Training Library." Click here for more information on this 14 Volume Chess Resource

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