Descriptive notation is a notation for recording chess games, and at one time was the most popular notation in English- and Spanish-speaking countries (Brace 1977:79–80) (Sunnucks 1970:325). It was used in Europe until it was superseded by algebraic notation, introduced by Philipp Stamma in 1737.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. Howard Staunton, in The Chess-Player's Handbook (1847), uses a cumbersome early version, viz., "P. to K's 4th." (later written P-K4). Notably, in the back of the book he offers brief descriptions of long algebraic notation, stating its adoption by "Alexandre, Jaenisch, the 'Handbuch,' and in Germany generally" (Staunton 1847:500–502), and of ICCF numeric notation, which he calls "Koch's Notation" (Staunton 1847:502–3).
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
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 the same system, the only difference being that the initials are taken from the equivalent Spanish words: dama for queen, rey for king, torre for tower (i.e. rook), caballo for horse (i.e. knight), and alfil for bishop. From left to right along the back rank, this gives: TD, CD, AD, D, R, AR, CR, TR.
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.
- 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 O-O is used for castling kingside and O-O-O 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) or after a slash: P-R8/Q. Sometimes an equal sign is used: 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 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 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. 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 the squares are named differently. Errors may be made when not realising 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.
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
- Brace, Edward (1977), "descriptive notation", An Illustrated Dictionary of Chess, Craftwell, ISBN 1-55521-394-4
- Golombek, Harry (1977), "notation, descriptive", Golombek's Encyclopedia of Chess, Batsford, ISBN 0-517-53146-1
- Hooper, David; Whyld, Kenneth (1992), "descriptive notation", The Oxford Companion to Chess (2nd ed.), Oxford University Press, ISBN 0-19-280049-3
- Just, Tim; Burg, Daniel B. (2003), U.S. Chess Federation's Official Rules of Chess (5th ed.), McKay, pp. 219–20, ISBN 0-8129-3559-4
- Lawrence, Al (January 2009), "On the Shoulders of Chess Giants", Chess Life (1): 10
- Staunton, Howard (1847), The Chess-Player's Handbook, Henry C. Bohn
- Sunnucks, Anne (1970), "descriptive notation", The Encyclopaedia of Chess, St. Martins Press, ISBN 978-0-7091-4697-1