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Descriptive notation

Descriptive notation is a notation for recording chess games, and at one time was the most popular notation in English- and Spanish-speaking countries. It was used in Europe until it was superseded by algebraic notation, introduced by Philipp Stamma in 1737. Algebraic notation is more concise and requires less effort to avoid ambiguity, but much older literature uses descriptive notation. Descriptive notation exists in many language-based variants, the most prevalent being English descriptive notation and Spanish descriptive notation. Natural language was generally used to describe moves in early chess literature, and is the ultimate source of all forms of descriptive notation. Over time abbreviations became common and a system of notation gradually evolved. By the time of Howard Staunton's The Chess-Player's Handbook (1847) a common first move for White was recorded as "P. to K's 4th."; this was later reduced to "P-K4". Notably, in the back of the book Staunton offers brief descriptions of long algebraic notation, noting its adoption by "Alexandre, Jaenisch, the 'Handbuch,' and in Germany generally" (Staunton 1847:500-502), and of "Koch's Notation" (Staunton 1847:502-3), now generally known as ICCF numeric notation.

FIDE stopped recognizing descriptive notation in 1981.

Naming the pieces

With the exception of the knight, 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 it is abbreviated to either Kt (used in older chess literature) or N. "N" is used in this article. In 1944 Chess Review received many letters debating the change from Kt to N (Lawrence 2009:10).

Naming the board squares

Names of the board squares in English descriptive notation

In descriptive 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 in English descriptive notation 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 corner square nearest White's left hand ("a1" in algebraic notation) is called "queen's rook 1" (QR1) by White and "queen's rook 8" (QR8) by Black.

Spanish descriptive notation uses a similar system, with a few differences.

In Spanish descriptive notation, the opening moves 1.e4 d5 2.exd5 Qxd5 would be rendered as 1.P4R P4D 2.PxP DxP

Notation for moves

Each move is indicated by a sequence of characters which is structured based on the move's type. Special indicators are added to the end of the sequence if relevant.

Typically, the full designation for a piece or a file is shortened to just the last part (indicating a type of piece) whenever this does not produce ambiguity. For example, the move KP-K4 would always be written P-K4 since only one pawn can move to K4 without capturing; the move Q-QB4 would be written Q-B4 whenever Q-KB4 is not a legal move. 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 omitted, so the Sicilian Defence (1. P-K4 P-QB4 in English) would be written 1. P4R P4AD. This is also the method used in French and Iberian countries (Hooper & Whyld 1992:106).


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-QB4 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.


Confusion can arise because there are two names for each square. Errors may be made when recording games or viewing recorded games, because of this element of ambiguity. In comparison, abbreviated algebraic notation represents the same moves with fewer characters, in most cases, without any ambiguity.


The Evergreen game (Adolf Anderssen versus Jean Dufresne, Berlin 1852):

White: G. A. Anderssen   Black: J. Dufresne   Opening: Evans Gambit (ECO C52)

English Descriptive Notation

  1. P-K4 P-K4
  2. N-KB3 N-QB3
  3. B-B4 B-B4
  4. P-QN4 BxNP
  5. P-B3 B-R4
  6. P-Q4 PxP
  7. O-O P-Q6
  8. Q-N3 Q-B3
  9. P-K5 Q-N3
  10. R-K1 KN-K2
  11. B-R3 P-N4
  12. QxP R-QN1
  13. Q-R4 B-N3
  14. QN-Q2 B-N2?
  15. N-K4 Q-B4?
  16. BxQP Q-R4
  17. N-B6 ch! PxN
  18. PxP R-N1
  19. QR-Q1! QxN
  20. RxN ch NxR
  21. QxP ch! KxQ
  22. B-B5 dbl ch K-K1
  23. B-Q7 ch K-B1
  24. BxN mate

Algebraic Notation

  1. e4 e5
  2. Nf3 Nc6
  3. Bc4 Bc5
  4. b4 Bxb4
  5. c3 Ba5
  6. d4 exd4
  7. O-O d3
  8. Qb3 Qf6
  9. e5 Qg6
  10. Re1 Nge7
  11. Ba3 b5
  12. Qxb5 Rb8
  13. Qa4 Bb6
  14. Nbd2 Bb7?
  15. Ne4 Qf5?
  16. Bxd3 Qh5
  17. Nf6+! gxf6
  18. exf6 Rg8
  19. Rad1! Qxf3
  20. Rxe7+ Nxe7
  21. Qxd7+! Kxd7
  22. Bf5+ Ke8
  23. Bd7+ Kf8
  24. Bxe7#