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descriptive notation

Descriptive chess notation

Descriptive chess notation, or just descriptive notation is a notation for recording chess games, and at one time was the most popular notation in Britain and America for doing so. It has been superseded by abbreviated algebraic notation, as the latter is more brief and less ambiguous. However chess players may find older chess books using this notation. Descriptive notation exists in many language-based variants, the most prevalent being English descriptive notation and Spanish descriptive notation. Howard Staunton, in The Chess-Player's Handbook, (1847) uses a cumbersome early version, viz., P. to K's 4th (later written P-K4). It is noteworthy that in the back of the book, he offers brief descriptions of long algebraic chess notation, which he calls that adopted by German writers, and of ICCF numeric notation, which he calls "Koch's Notation."

Naming the pieces

Each piece is abbreviated to the first letter of its name: K for king, Q for queen, R for rook, B for bishop, P for pawn. Knight begins with the same letter as king, so to get around this it is abbreviated to either Kt or N. "Kt" was used in older chess literature. "N" is used in the examples in this article.

Naming squares on the board

In descriptive chess notation each square has two names, depending on black's or white's viewpoint. Each file is given a name corresponding with the piece that occupies the first rank at the start of the game. Thus the queen's file is named 'Q' and the king's file is named 'K'. Since there are two each of the remaining pieces on the first rank, it is necessary to distinguish between them. The pieces on the queen's side of the board (left for white, right for black) are named with respect to the queen i.e. 'queen's rook', 'queen's knight' and 'queen's bishop' and have the shortened names 'QR', 'QN' and 'QB' respectively. Similarly, the pieces on the king's side (right for white, left for black) are named with respect to the king i.e. 'king's rook', 'king's knight' and 'king's bishop' and have the shortened names 'KR', 'KN' and 'KB' respectively. The rank is given a number, ranging from 1 to 8, with rank 1 being closest to the player. This method of naming the squares means that each square has one name from white's point of view and another from black's. For instance, the bottom left square ('a1' in algebraic chess notation) is called "queen's rook 1" (QR1) by white and "queen's rook 8" (QR8) by black.

Notation for moves

Each move of a piece is indicated by a sequence of characters. Castling has its own sequence of characters and special indicators are added to the end of the sequence if relevant.

  • Move that is not a capture: A move without capture is represented by the piece's name, a hyphen and the square at the end of the move e.g. N-QB3 (knight to queen's bishop 3), 'P-QN4 (pawn to queen's knight 4). In some literature, if the move is to the first rank, the "1" is omitted.
  • Capture: A move with capture is represented by the piece's name, a cross (x) and the destination square is identified by the name of the piece captured e.g. QxN (queen captures knight).
  • Castling: The notation 0-0 is used for castling kingside and 0-0-0 for castling queenside. The word "Castles" is sometimes used instead, particularly in older literature.
  • Promotion: Parentheses are used to indicate promotion, with the piece resulting from the promotion in parentheses: P-R8(Q). Sometimes an equal sign is used instead, as in P-R8=Q.
  • Special terms: Special indicators that are appended to the move include e.p. (en passant), ch or + (check), mate or ++ (checkmate), resigns, and draw.

Typically, the move will record only enough information to make the move unambiguous. For example, after 1. P-K4 P-K4, the move 2. B-QB4 would be written 2. B-B4, since White cannot legally move either bishop to KB4. A pawn capturing a pawn may be shown as PxP if it is the only one possible, or as BPxP if only one of the player's Bishop's Pawns can capture another pawn, or as QBPxP, or PxQBP, or other such variations.

Disambiguation of pieces using notations like QBP and KR becomes awkward once they have moved away from their starting positions (or starting files, for pawns) and is impossible for pieces created by promotion (such as a second queen). So as an alternative, moves may also be disambiguated by giving the starting position or the location of a capture, delimited with parentheses or a slash, as BxN/QB6, or R(QR3)-Q3. Sometimes only the rank or file is indicated, as R(6)xN.

When listing the moves of a game, first the move number is written, then the move by White followed by the move by Black. If there's no appropriate White move to use (e.g., if the moves are interrupted by commentary) then an ellipsis ... is used in its place.

In Spanish descriptive notation the hyphen is not needed, as the rank serves as separator. So the Sicilian opening (1. P-K4 P-QB4 in English) would be written 1. P4R P4AD.

Advantages

By identifying each square with reference to the player on move, descriptive notation better reflects the symmetry of the game's starting position ("both players opened with P-K4 and planned to play B-KN2 as soon as possible"), and because the pieces captured are named, it is easy to skim over a game record and see which ones have been taken at any particular point.

The maxim that "a pawn on the seventh is worth two on the fifth" makes sense from both Black's perspective as well as White's perspective.

English descriptive notation is also particular to chess, not to any other game.

Disadvantages

Confusion can arise because the squares are named differently. Errors may be made when not realizing that a move is ambiguous. In comparison, abbreviated algebraic notation represents the same moves with fewer characters, on average, and can avoid confusion since it always represents the same square in the same way.

Example

The Evergreen game (Adolf Anderssen, Jean Dufresne, 1852) in English descriptive chess notation.
White:  G. A. Anderssen
Black:  J. Dufresne
Opening:  Evans Gambit
Location: Berlin, 1854
   White       Black
  -------     -------
1. P-K4        P-K4
2. Kt-KB3      Kt-QB3
3. B-B4        B-B4
4. P-QKt4      BxKtP
5. P-B3        B-R4
6. P-Q4        PxP
7. O-O         P-Q6
8. Q-Kt3       Q-B3
9. P-K5        Q-Kt3
10. R-K1 KKt-K2 11. B-R3 P-Kt4 12. QxP R-QKt1 13. Q-R4 B-Kt3 14. QKt-Q2 B-Kt2? 15. Kt-K4 Q-B4? 16. BxQP Q-R4 17. Kt-B6 ch! PxKt 18. PxP R-Kt1 19. QR-Q1! QxKt 20. RxKt ch KtxR 21. QxP ch! KxQ 22. B-B5 dbl ch K-K1 23. B-Q7 ch K-Q1 24. BxKt mate
Other examples occur in Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking-Glass.

Names of pieces in other languages

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