Reading and Writing Chess Moves
“The squares have names?”
“If you play well, they have names.”
This line from Netflix’s The Queen’s Gambit pretty well sums up the need to know chess notation! Or, perhaps a little more accurately: in order to play well, you need to know the names of the squares.
That’s because virtually everything written about chess uses this notation to describe the moves. Even if you watch videos on chess, the person talking is almost sure to use the notation when speaking. Put simply, it’s very hard to learn how to play what moves and when without knowing the language of chess!
But there’s even a more important reason to know chess notation: you can use it to record your own games and go through them again later, which is an absolutely essential habit you need to develop to improve (if nothing else, you’ll want to show your friends your triumphant victories!) And if that’s not enough, if you plan to play chess at tournaments, you’re actually required to write down the moves!
So in this article, we’ll explain what chess notation is and how you can read and use it easily. It’s so simple, you’ll have it down in no time!
Descriptive Notation vs. Algebraic Notation
Maybe you have watched movies or TV shows where the characters are playing chess, and you hear them calling out moves like “bishop to queen’s knight five” or something similar. While that is a type of chess notation, that’s actually not the notation chess players use today.
That type of notation is called descriptive notation and was used for many years to describe chess moves both orally and in writing – even as late as the 1980s. The majority of chess books before that time used that old style.
The problem with descriptive notation is that it can be quite confusing. One reason is that the descriptive square locations are relative, not absolute. To use the previous example, White’s “queen knight five”, i.e., the fifth square up in the queen’s knight column, (written QN5) is actually a different square than Black’s “queen knight five” – it depends on which side of the board you’re on!
It’s also fairly bulky – not only does it take up more space on the page than its successor, it may also require additional explanations or comments to make sure the squares are clearly identified.
Today, algebraic notation is the standard way to describe chess moves. With algebraic notation, every square is a coordinate based on White’s perspective. The bottom left corner square is a1 (it’s a dark square if your chess board is facing the right way). The square above that is a2, and the square above that is a3, and so on. The square to the right of a1 (again, from White’s perspective) is b1, the square to the right of that is c1, and so on. This explanation makes it sound more complicated than it is though – a picture is worth 1,000 words!
In chess terminology, each of the rows (the number part of the coordinate) is called a rank. For example, you could say “I moved my rook to the 7th rank” or “his back rank was weak.”
Each of the columns (the letter part of the coordinate) is called a file. The files are named with their letters. For example, “she controls the e-file with her queen.”
Unlike with descriptive notation, the location of these squares is absolute. To see what this means, consider this diagram:
If you’ve been following along, you’ll know that White’s king pawn is on e4. But what if you’re Black, what square is it on then?
The answer is: it’s still on e4! Even though it looks like it’s on the 5th rank from Black’s perspective, it doesn’t matter. Algebraic notation always describes the moves from White’s perspective, no matter whose moves we’re talking about!
How to Use Algebraic Notation
Okay, so how do we write actual moves down? To do so, we have to know the name of the pieces in algebraic notation. They are:
king = K queen = Q rook = R knight = N bishop = B
So, knowing that, how would you describe this move?
The answer is “Nf3” (pronounced simply as “knight f3” or “knight to f3”). More specifically, if it were White’s first move of the game, you would say 1.Nf3. If subsequently Black also moved their king’s knight out, say to f6, the first moves of the game would be written 1.Nf3 Nf6. If White followed that move by moving their second knight to c3, the whole game would be written as 1.Nf3 Nf6 2.Nc3.
So what about pawn moves? How do you describe those?
Pawn moves are simply described as the square they move to. For example, moving your king’s pawn two squares up would simply be written as e4, and chess players universally understand this as a pawn move, because no letters precede the square notation.
Castling, Capturing, and “Special Moves”
But what about castling? How do you concisely write a move that takes two pieces simultaneously moving to two different squares? Castling is the special case you have to remember. In the case of kingside castling, as shown as below, chess players write O-O. You can read it as “castles kingside.”
In the case of queenside castling (castling in the opposite direction), you would write O-O-O (pronounced “castles queenside”). Why O-O and O-O-O for castling? Well, just because. 😋
When a piece is captured, we write an x before the square. For example, let’s say you want to capture the Black knight in the center of the board using your knight on f3, as in the diagram below. How would you write this move in chess notation?
The answer is Nxd4 (pronounced “knight takes d4”). Notice that you don’t mention it’s a knight that you’re capturing on that square – you just say you’re capturing the square. If your opponent’s piece were a bishop, the move would still be Nxd4. Pawn, queen, rook, you name it – it’s still Nxd4.
One type of capture you have to be careful with is the en passant capture. If you remember from the rules of chess, if your pawn is one square into the enemy’s half of the board, and your opponent advances a pawn two squares such that it lands next to it, you can capture it en passant, like so:
In this case, you would write the capture as “dxe6”, even though the pawn you captured was on d5. That’s because you are showing where your pawn ended up.
To describe a check, simply write + after the move. Imagine you want to move your rook in this position to the 7th rank to deliver a check to the enemy king. How would you write that in chess notation?
The answer is “Rb7+” (pronounced “rook b7 check” or “rook to b7 check”). If the check you play results in checkmate, you change the + to a # (pronounced “checkmate” or “mate”). For example, Rb7# (but in the diagram above, Rb7+ is not checkmate!).
The final type of move you need to know in chess notation is the promotion of a pawn. As you know from the rules of chess, when a White pawn reaches the 8th rank or a Black pawn reaches the 1st rank, it can turn into any piece it wants (except for a king or another pawn). To write this in algebraic notation, you would use an =. For example, if White’s a-pawn was promoted to a queen, you would write a8=Q. If you promote the pawn to a knight instead of a queen, you would write a8=N.
Okay, so that’s how you write the piece moves, but wait a minute: in some cases, the same type of piece can go to the same square – how can you record those moves knowing which one made the move?
If you thought about this, good catch! In the case of some pieces, namely rooks and knights, you’ll have two of them, and potentially both of them could make the same move. How do you record which one went to the square accurately? Take this position for example:
If White wanted to move the rook on f1 to e1, it would be confusing to write Re1, because the rook on a1 could also move to e1. So, to avoid this confusion, you would write Rfe1 (i.e., “the rook on the f-file is the one going to e1). Similarly, if White wanted to move the f3 knight to d2, White would have to write “Nfd2.”
But consider the Black rooks in the same position. Suppose Black wants to move the rook on c8 to c7. Well, in this case, both the rooks are on the c-file, so how would Black record that? The answer is R8c7 (i.e., “the rook on the 8th rank is the one going to c7”).
And with that, you now know how to describe every move in chess using algebraic notation! See, it wasn’t that hard, was it? 😉 Well, much like the game of chess itself, chess notation is fairly easy to learn, but can take a while to master! You simply have to practice reading and writing the moves and learning to identify the squares by their names. One excellent way to practice is with this free tool from lichess.org, where you can practice identifying the squares using algebraic notation.
Chess Notation Cheat Sheet
For handy use, here is a simple cheat sheet you can refer which sums up everything above and gives some examples:
king = K queen = Q rook = R knight = N bishop = B
castles kingside = O-O castles queenside = O-O-O
takes = x check = + checkmate = #
Bxf3 “bishop takes f3”
Qe7+ “queen to e7 check”
Rb8# “rook b8 mate”
exf6 “e takes f6” (the e-pawn is capturing the pawn or piece on f6)
d8=Q (the d-pawn reached the 8th rank and turned into a queen)
Nbd2 (both knights could go to d2, but the knight that was on the b-file was the one that went to d2)
R8c2 (both rooks were on the c-file, but the rook that was on the 8th rank was the on that went to c2).
While we covered above is enough to start reading and using chess notation, it is actually not all the chess notation that exists. Also common are commentary marks, which are shorthand ways to describe the nature of a move (sometimes in the user’s opinion, though usually from an objective standpoint such as a computer evaluation).
The most common of these are ? and !, sometimes used together or doubled up. Here are the meanings for each case:
? denotes a mistake
?? denotes a blunder – a major error such as giving up a piece with no compensation or allowing checkmate
?! denotes an inaccuracy – a dubious move which gives up an advantage, though nothing major
! denotes a good move
!! denotes a brilliant move – often one that even a computer does not immediately see
!? denotes a surprising move – one that wouldn’t typically be played in such a position or that the user offers as an interesting possibility
We tack these marks on the end of the move itself. So for example, if the author thought that 28.Qg4 was a good move, they would write it 28.Qg4!
Though not really commentary, we also denote wins, losses, and draws in notation. Players often write these symbols in the scoresheet box in place of the move or as the next move.
1-0 denotes a White win (i.e., the first player gets 1 point)
0-1 denotes a Black win (i.e., the second player gets 1 point)
1/2 – 1/2 denotes a draw (i.e., each player gets a half point)
Though less common, other marks can be used to describe who has the advantage. Like the ! and ? marks, you simply tack them onto the move. For example:
= denotes a move that results in an equal position or a draw
+/= denotes a slight advantage for White
=/+ denotes a slight advantage for Black
+/- denotes a clear advantage for White
-/+ denotes a clear advantage for Black
+- denotes a winning advantage for White
-+ denotes a winning advantage for Black
This may sound like a matter of opinion, but often the user gives these based on the analysis of a computer. In any case, these marks are not as common as ! and ?. You should definitely remember ! and ?, as they appear in almost any book or Chessable course!
You now know everything you need to start recording your moves and reading about chess – and then some! But much like languages such as Spanish or French, it takes time and repeated practice to be able to use it fluently. Whenever you play a game, try recording the moves yourself without the use of a computer. Better yet, try taking this free Chessable course to learn more of the basics of chess and practice reading and writing the notation. In just a few weeks, you’ll be fluent in the language of chess!