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Chess annotation symbols

When annotating chess games, commentators frequently use widely recognized annotation symbols. Question marks and exclamation points that denote a move as bad or good are ubiquitous in chess literature. Some publications intended for an international audience, such as the Chess Informant have a wide range of additional symbols that transcend language barriers.

The common symbols for evaluating the merits of a move are "??", "?", "?!", "!?", "!", and "!!". In these cases, the corresponding symbol is juxtaposed in the text immediately after the move (e.g. Re7? or Kh1!?, see algebraic chess notation).

Use of these annotation symbols is subjective, as different annotators use the same symbols differently. Moreover, an annotator's use of symbols is often influenced by the player's strength: a positional misjudgment that an annotator might give a "??" if played by a strong grandmaster might pass unremarked if played by a beginner.

Annotators' use of punctuation also may possibly be influenced by the result of the game (regardless of the actual quality of the move); one possible example came in the 11th game of the 1972 World Championship, when Spassky played an unexpected move, 14.Nb1, retreating the knight to its initial square. Spassky won the game, and several annotators gave the move two exclamation points. Edmar Mednis asserted that if Spassky had lost the game, the move would likely have been given two question marks instead.

Move evaluation symbols

Move symbols in increasing effectiveness of the move:

?? (Blunder)

Read main article: Blunder (chess)

The double question mark "??" indicates a blunder, a very bad mistake. Typical moves which receive double question marks are those that overlook that the queen is under attack or overlook a checkmate. A "??"-worthy move often moves a player from a winning position to a draw or loss, a drawn position into a losing one, or an eventual losing position into an immediate loss. They occur at all levels of play to all human competitors, but only the most basic computer programs commit such obvious mistakes.

? (Mistake)

A single question mark "?" after a move indicates that the annotator thinks that the move is a poor one that should not be played. These often lead to loss of tempo or material. The nature of the mistake may be more strategic than tactical; in some cases, the move receiving a question mark may be one that is difficult to find a refutation for. A move that overlooks a forthcoming brilliant combination from the opponent would rarely receive more than one question mark, for example.

Whether a single or double question mark is used often depends on the player's strength. For instance, if a beginner makes a serious strategic error (for instance, accepting gratuitous pawn weaknesses or exchanging into a lost endgame) or overlooks a tactical sequence, this might be explained by the beginner's lack of skill, and be given only one question mark. If a master were to make the same move, some annotators might use the double question mark to indicate that one would never expect a player of the master's strength to make such a weak move.

?! (Dubious move)

This symbol is similar to the "!?" (below) but usually indicates that the annotator believes the move to be objectively bad, albeit hard to refute. The "?!" is also often used instead of a "?" to indicate that the move is not all bad. A sacrifice leading to a dangerous attack which the opponent should be able to defend against if he plays well may receive a "?!". Alternatively, this may denote a move that is truly bad, but sets up an attractive trap.

!? (Interesting move)

The "!?" is one of the more controversial symbols. Different books have slightly varying definitions. Among the definitions are "interesting, but perhaps not the best move", "move deserving attention", "enterprising move" and "risky move". Usually it indicates that the move leads to exciting or wild play and that the move is probably good. It is also often used when a player sets a cunning trap in a lost position. Typical moves receiving a "!?" are those involving speculative sacrifices or dangerous attacks which might turn out to be strategically deficient.

Andrew Soltis jokingly called "!?" the symbol of the lazy annotator who finds a move interesting but cannot be bothered to work out whether it is good or bad.

! (Good move)

While question marks indicate bad moves, exclamation points ("!") indicate good moves - especially ones which are surprising or involve particular skill. Hence annotators are usually somewhat conservative with the use of this symbol; for example, they would not annotate a game thus: 1.e4! c5! 2.Nf3! d6! 3.d4! cxd4! 4.Nxd4! Nf6! 5.Nc3! Although these may be good moves, the players have demonstrated little skill by simply following well-known opening theory in a main line Sicilian Defence.

Once the players start making good choices when faced with difficult decisions, however, a few moves may receive exclamation points from annotators. Typical moves receiving exclamation points are strong opening novelties, well-timed breakthroughs, sound sacrifices, and moves that avoid falling into traps.

‼ (Brilliant move)

The double exclamation point ("‼") is used to praise a move which the annotator thinks really shows the player's skill. Such moves are usually hard to find. These may include sound sacrifices of large amounts of material and counter-intuitive moves that are in fact very strong. In what is known as the Game of the Century, 13-year-old Bobby Fischer's decision to sacrifice his queen is usually awarded a double exclamation point.

Other symbols

A few writers have used three or more exclamation points ("!!!") for an exceptionally brilliant move. For example in Rotlewi-Rubinstein 1907, Hans Kmoch awarded Rubinstein's 22...Rxc3 three exclamation points. Likewise, an exceptionally bad blunder may be awarded three or more question marks ("???"). The general consensus among chess writers is that these symbols are unnecessary.

A few writers have used unusual combinations of question marks and exclamation points (e.g. "!!?", "?!?", "??!") for particularly unusual or controversial moves, but these have no generally accepted meaning, and are typically used for humorous or entertainment purposes.

Occasionally an annotation symbol may be put in parentheses, e.g. "(?)", "(!)". Different writers have used these in different ways; for example Simon Webb used "(?)" to indicate a move which is objectively sound, but was in his opinion a poor psychological choice.

Alternate uses

There are some systems which use these symbols in different ways.

The Nunn Convention

In his 1992 book Secrets of Rook Endings and other books in the series (Secrets of Minor-Piece Endings and Secrets of Pawnless Endings), John Nunn uses these symbols in a more specific way in the context of endgames where the optimal line of play can be determined with certainty:

This convention has been used in some later works, such as Fundamental Chess Endings and Secrets of Pawn Endings by Karsten Müller and Frank Lamprecht, but it can be safely assumed the convention is not being used unless there is a specific note otherwise. The Nunn convention cannot be used to annotate full games because the exact evaluation of a position is generally impractical to compute.

In 1959, Euwe and Hooper made the same use of the question mark, "... a decisive error...".

Hübner's approach

German grandmaster Robert Hübner prefers an even more specific and restrained use of move evaluation symbols: "I have attached question marks to the moves which change a winning position into a drawn game, or a drawn position into a losing one, according to my judgment; a move which changes a winning game into a losing one deserves two question marks ... I have distributed question marks in brackets to moves which are obviously inaccurate and significantly increase the difficulty of the player's task ... There are no exclamation marks, as they serve no useful purpose. The best move should be mentioned in the analysis in any case; an exclamation mark can only serve to indicate the personal excitement of the commentator."

Chess composition

When the solution to a certain chess problem is given, there are also some conventions that have become a common practice:

Position evaluation symbols

These symbols indicate the strategic balance of the game position:

Other symbols

There are other symbols used by various chess engines and publications, such as Chess Informant and Encyclopaedia of Chess Openings. These include:

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