Descriptive notation

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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 It has been superseded by algebraic notation, which is more concise and requires less effort to avoid ambiguity. The international chess governing body 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).

Names of the squares in English descriptive notation

Each square has two names, depending on the viewpoint of White or Black. Each file is given a name corresponding to 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 (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.

When recording a move by White, the naming from White's point of view is used; when recording a move by Black, the naming from Black's point of view is used.

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).

In Spanish descriptive notation the Sicilian Defence (1. P-K4 P-QB4 in English) would be written 1. P4R P4AD. This is also the method used in French descriptive notation (Hooper & Whyld 1992:106).

Notation for moves[edit]

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[clarification needed] literature, if the move is to the first rank, the "1" is omitted.[citation needed]
  • Capture: 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 kingside and O-O-O for castling queenside. The word "Castles" is sometimes used instead, particularly in older literature, in which case it may be necessary to disambiguate between kingside and queenside castling; this may be done by specifying the rook, i.e. "Castles KR" or "Castles QR".[1]
  • 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[edit]


  • 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").
  • Because the type of each captured piece is specified, it is easy to skim over a game score and see which ones have been taken at any particular point.
  • Maxims such as "a pawn on the seventh is worth two on the fifth" makes sense from both Black's as well as White's perspective.
  • Understanding descriptive notation allows one to study historical chess literature.


  • 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.
  • Algebraic notation represents the same moves with fewer characters and, in most cases, without any ambiguity.
  • Because (unambiguous) captures lack coordinate information, visualization is more taxing, since it requires remembering exactly which pieces are attacking which. This is in contrast with algebraic notation, where each move specifies which square is being occupied.


The Evergreen Game (Adolf Anderssen versus Jean Dufresne, Evans Gambit, Berlin 1852):

English descriptive notation[edit]

  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[edit]

  1. e4 e5
  2. Nf3 Nc6
  3. Bc4 Bc5
  4. b4 Bxb4
  5. c3 Ba5
  6. d4 exd4
  7. 0-0 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#


  1. ^ Reinfeld, Fred (1963). The Seventh Book of Chess. U.S.A.: Barnes & Noble. ISBN 9780064632744.