Lesson 6 - How to Read And Write Chess Moves With The Algebraic Notation

"Chess books should be used as we use glasses: to assist the sight, although some players make use of them as if they conferred sight."
- Jose Raul Capablanca

If you do not know the chess rules, I recommend you to go through the tutorial on the chess rules before continuing with this tutorial.

The Long Algebraic Notation

At the beginning, a long form of the algebraic notation was used.  In this simple system, the move done by a player is indicated with the starting and arrival squares of the piece being moved, separated by a dash ("-") or by an an "x" for a capture. Squares are identified by their column and row coordinates as explained in lesson 1. Refer to the chessboard below for the squares' algebraic description (but you should already be familiar if you have done the previous tutorial...):

Diagram 6.1 - Algebraic Description
Diagram 6.1 - Algebraic description of the squares

When noting a game, we use two columns to identify each player's moves. Since White is always the first to start the game, the first column will be dedicated for White's moves list. We also add the move sequence number in front of the line used to describe the moving sequence done by both players. To show you how to read a game with this notation method, let's use the below example:

1. e2-e4   e7-e5
2. g1-f3   d7-d5
3. e4xd5   d8xd5

It would read like this:
On the first move, White advances his e2 pawn to e4. Black responds by advancing his e7 pawn to e5. On the second move, White moves his g1 knight to f3. Black plays his d7 pawn to d5. On the third move, White captures the d5 pawn with his e4 pawn. Black takes back the d5 pawn with his Queen on d8.

This system was abandonned because it was not possible to identify easily which piece was moving on each move. A more precise and shorter version of this method was created to fix this issue.

The Short Algebraic Notation

We will concentrate on this notation method as this is the most used nowadays. In this method, a letter is used as a symbol to represent each piece:

  • King: the letter K
  • Queen: the letter Q
  • Rook: the letter R
  • Bishop: the letter B
  • Knight: the letter N
  • Pawn: no letter assigned.

Moving and Capturing

When there is no capture, the moves are described by the letter symbol representing the piece used and its arrival square. For a pawn move, only the arrival square is used.

Captures are indicated by placing an "x" in between the piece's symbol and the arrival square. For example, if we have the move Bxe5, it means that the bishop is capturing the piece sitting on the e5 square. For the pawns, the capture is indicated by using the column's coordinate of the pawn doing the capture, followed by the "x" and the arrival square. As an example, exd5 means that a pawn occupying the e file is capturing the piece on d5. This is true also for the "en passant" capture (see lesson 2 for details about this special move) even if the arrival square is not the same as the piece being captured. Some chess players used the initials "e.p." after the move description to be more specific.

Following these rules, we will obtain the following game description for the example used in the long algebraic notation's section:

1. e4   e5
2. Kf3   d5
3. exd5   Qxd5

There is an inconvenient when using the short version: it might occur that two identical pieces (two knights for example) can move on the same arrival square. In this case, we have to specify which piece is used by precising the coordinate (file or rank) uniquely identifying the piece that is moving. If you look at diagram 6.2, you will note that the moves' descriptions indicated below the diagram are confusing:

Diagram 6.2 - Example of identical pieces that can move on the same square

Diagram 6.2 - Example of identical pieces that can move on the same square

1. Nd5  Rf5

Which white knight should we play?  And after, which black rook will go the the f5 square?  To clarify the move description when this situation occurs, we use the file's coordinate when both pieces occupy the same rank and the rank's coordinate when the pieces are sitting on the same file. By following this method, our example will make more sense with the following notation:

1. Ned5  2. R4f5

Which means that the knight sitting on the e file will move to d5. The rook occupying the 4th rank will go to the f5 square. This rule is also valid when noting a capture.

The Other Cases

Kinside castling is described by the "O-O" symbol and queenside castling by "O-O-O". The number of "O"s corresponds to the number of squares between the King and the rook used when castling.

The promotion corresponds to the notation of a normal pawn move, followed by the "=" sign and the letter symbol idendifying the piece replacing the pawn after the promotion. Thus the notation "g1=Q" means that the black pawn on the g file goes to the g1 square and get replaced by a Queen. The notation "c8=N" means that the white pawn occupying the c file advances to c8 and get replaced by the a knight (underpromotion).

A check is identified by adding a "+" sign at the end of the move's description. Thus Qh4+ means that the Queen moves to h4 and checks the opponent's King.

A checkmate is identified by adding the symbols "#" or "++" at the end of the move's description.

Other symbols are used to put more details about the game's description. These symbols are placed at the end of moves to which we want to put emphasis on. Here are those symbols and there meaning:

! Good Move
!! Excellent Move
? Bad Move
?? Blunder loosing the game
!? Interesting Move
?! Dubious Move
= Equal Position
Position not clear
+- White is winning
+= White is better
White has a slight advantage
-+ Black is winning
=+ Black is better
Black has a slight advantage
1-0 White won the game
0-1 Black won the game
½-½ Draw

The usage of some of the above symbols will vary according to the game's annotators. The analysis process is pretty subjective... so an excellent move (!!) for one annotator might just be good (!) for others, and the same might occur for bad (?) or dubious (?!) move. At least, they add some colors to game annotations and tell us about the annotator's impressions about the game.

That concludes this short lesson... please take the time to complete the exercises available on the next page.online chess tutorial

I do not recommend it, but you can also skip the exercises and go directly to the next lesson to learn the phases of the game.