Descriptive notation is a notation system for recording chess games which was used in English, Spanish and French chess literature until about 1980 (Brace 1977:79–80) (Sunnucks 1970:325). It has been superseded by algebraic notation, which is more concise and requires less effort to avoid ambiguity. FIDE stopped recognizing descriptive notation in 1981.
In the earliest chess literature, natural language was used to describe moves. This is the ultimate source of all forms of descriptive notation. Over time, abbreviations became common, and a system of notation gradually evolved. For example, the common opening move 1.e4 was originally recorded as "Pawn to King's Fourth" or similar; by the time of Howard Staunton's The Chess-Player's Handbook (1847), this had been abbreviated to "P. to K's 4th."; and later was further reduced to "P-K4".
With the exception of the knight, each piece is abbreviated to the first letter of its name: K = king, Q = queen, R = rook, B = bishop, P = 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).
Each square has two names, depending on the viewpoint of White or Black. Each is given a name corresponding to the piece that occupies the first 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 (to White's left; to Black's right) 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 (White's right; Black's left) 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". 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 example, the corner square nearest White's left hand (i.e. square 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:
- The initials to identify the pieces are taken from the equivalent Spanish words: R = rey (king), D = dama (queen), T = torre (rook), C = caballo (knight), A = alfil (bishop) and P = peón (pawn). The files are named after the initials of the pieces on the first rank, with those on the queen's side being suffixed by the letter "D", and those on the king's side suffixed by the letter "R". From White's left to right along the first rank this yields: TD, CD, AD, D, R, AR, CR, TR.
- The dash, which in English descriptive notation symbolizes the word "to", is omitted.
- The numerical rank is identified before the file, e.g. "4R" is equivalent to "K4" (e4 in algebraic notation).
Notation for moves
Each move is notated by a sequence of characters that is structured based on the move's type. Special indicators are added to the end of the sequence if relevant.
- Non-capturing move: A move without capture is notated by the piece's name, a hyphen and the destination square, e.g. N-QB3 (knight to queen's bishop 3) and P-QN4 (pawn to queen's knight 4). In some literature, if the move is to the first rank, the "1" is omitted.
- : A move with capture is notated 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 and O-O-O for castling . The word "Castles" is sometimes used instead, particularly in older literature.
- Promotion: Parentheses are used to indicate promotion, with the promotion piece enclosed in parentheses, e.g. P-R8(Q). Sometimes a slash or an equal sign is used, e.g. P-R8/Q, P-R8=Q.
- Special terms and symbols: Special indicators that are appended to the move include "e.p." (en passant), "ch" or "+" (check), "?" (a question mark for a bad move), "!" (an exclamation mark for a good move), "mate" or "++" (checkmate), "resigns" and "draw".
Typically, the full designation for a piece or a file is shortened to just the last part (indicating 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 a pawn, or as QBPxP, or PxQBP or other such variations.
Disambiguation of pieces using notations like QBP and KR becomes awkward once the pieces have left their starting positions (or for pawns, left their starting files), 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 square or the square of a capture, delimited by parentheses or a slash, e.g. BxN/QB6 or R(QR3)-Q3. Sometimes only the rank or file is indicated, e.g. 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 is no appropriate move by White to use (e.g. if the moves are interrupted by commentary) then an ellipsis ("...") is used in its place.
Advantages and disadvantages
- By identifying each square with reference to the player on move, descriptive notation better reflects the symmetry of the game's starting position (e.g. "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 and see which ones have been taken at any particular point.
- The maxim "a pawn on the seventh is worth two on the fifth" makes sense from both Black's 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 reading game scores because of this element of ambiguity. In comparison, abbreviated algebraic notation represents the same moves with fewer characters and in most cases, without any ambiguity.
English descriptive notation
- P-K4 P-K4
- N-KB3 N-QB3
- B-B4 B-B4
- P-QN4 BxNP
- P-B3 B-R4
- P-Q4 PxP
- O-O P-Q6
- Q-N3 Q-B3
- P-K5 Q-N3
- R-K1 KN-K2
- B-R3 P-N4
- QxP R-QN1
- Q-R4 B-N3
- QN-Q2 B-N2
- N-K4 Q-B4
- BxQP Q-R4
- N-B6 ch PxN
- PxP R-N1
- QR-Q1 QxN
- RxN ch NxR
- QxP ch KxQ
- B-B5 dbl ch K-K1
- B-Q7 ch K-B1
- BxN mate
- e4 e5
- Nf3 Nc6
- Bc4 Bc5
- b4 Bxb4
- c3 Ba5
- d4 exd4
- 0-0 d3
- Qb3 Qf6
- e5 Qg6
- Re1 Nge7
- Ba3 b5
- Qxb5 Rb8
- Qa4 Bb6
- Nbd2 Bb7
- Ne4 Qf5
- Bxd3 Qh5
- Nf6+ gxf6
- exf6 Rg8
- Rad1 Qxf3
- Rxe7+ Nxe7
- Qxd7+ Kxd7
- Bf5+ Ke8
- Bd7+ Kf8
- 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 (1996) [First pub. 1992]. "descriptive notation". The Oxford Companion to Chess (2nd ed.). Oxford University Press. p. 106. 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