Wednesday, December 07, 2022 10:31

LV’s Notation Course

Taking notation is easy! It’s easier than learning how the pieces move, and far easier than actually figuring out where your pieces will move to. With time and practice, you can notate your games and read notation of other games easily. This document is long only because it is chock full of diagrams and examples.

In times past it was not so easy. An older system (called descriptive notation,) required the player to identify what piece was moving, where it was moving from, where it was moving to, and all from the perspective of whichever side was moving. Today we use a system called “Short Algebraic Notation,” or, “Standard Algebraic Notation,” to quickly record the moves of a game. It is abbreviated SAN.

Short Algebraic Notation can be broken down into 7 basic steps, and a last step.

1. Which piece is moving?
2. Is the move capturing a piece?
3. Where is it moving to?


3A. Is there two pieces of the same type that could reach the destination square?
4. Castling!
5. Is there a pawn promotion occurring?
6. Does a move deliver check?
7. Does a move deliver checkmate?
8. What’s the final score?


1. What piece is moving?
The first thing we need to do is identify which piece is moving. The pieces (except pawns) are all given capital-letter abbreviations. These abbreviations are:

King = K
Queen = Q
Rook = R
Bishop = B
kNight= N (It’s an N because the King already took “K”. He’s the King, after all!)

If no letter is given for the piece, it is a pawn. Instead, only the square that the pawn moves to is recorded unless a capture occurs. (This will be explained in greater detail below. For now, just understand that pawns don’t have a letter abbreviation.)

One thing to be aware of: Other languages may use other initials for the pieces. (The pieces are called different names in different languages, so it makes sense that their abbreviations may change! Describing those changes are outside the scope of this document.)

2. Is a capture occurring?
If a capture occurs, the letter “x” in lowercase is added after the piece name. A capture by a Queen would begin Qx__. A Bishop capturing any piece would begin Bx__.

Pawns are an exception. For pawns, you identify which file the pawn started on that made the capture. (See below for graphic examples and what a file is.) One brief example: If a pawn that starts on the e file captures any piece on the d-file, the notation would begin exd_.

A last note about en passant pawn captures: If you don’t know what “en passant” means, you are not alone. You can visit here, at Wikipedia, to learn more about en passant. Some people write “e.p.” after an en passant pawn capture. But it isn’t necessary. As above, just write the file the pawn starts on, the “x”, and the square the pawn lands on. If all of this paragraph confuses you right now, just skip it and move on.

For now, just understand that “x” means a capture.

3. Where is it moving to?
We have to somehow number the squares on a chessboard. One way to divide up a chessboard is to name vertical columns (called files) with letters from “a” to “h”, and then number horizontal rows (called ranks) from 1 to 8. Any square on a chessboard can thus be identified by which file and rank it is on, like the diagram below:

The Algebraic Coordinate System

The Algebraic Coordinate System

(And this is also the origin of the phrase, “rank and file.” :)

The White pieces always begin on Ranks 1 and 2. The Black pieces always begin on Ranks 7 and 8. The Kings are on their proper starting places in the diagram above. The White King always stats on e1. The Black King always starts on e8. (Remember that Queens always take their own color?)

You should always assume that rank 1 (“first rank”) is at the bottom of a diagram, and the file farthest to the left is always the “a” file. Diagrams are almost always looked at as if White set its’ pieces up on the bottom of the diagram.

(I say, “almost.” It may be just barely possible that a diagram is “reversed,” with the 8th Rank at the bottom. But if it is, it will be marked that way by whomever made it. And it is *very* rare. Don’t worry about this at the moment – just assume the bottom row is always first rank.)

Now, you can already identify any square to which a piece is moving to, just by naming which file and which rank the piece is going to!


Let’s look at the first few steps of a game in diagrams and notation.
In the first move of a game, let’s say White has decided to move the pawn in front of the King two spaces to the light green square below:
If you count files from left to right, you will see this is the “e” File (A, B, C, D, E.)
If you count the ranks leading to the green square, you will see the green square is on the 4th Rank.

Step 1: It is a pawn moving, so no letter abbreviation is used.
Step 2: No capture is taking place.
Step 3: It is moving to square e4.

The move is written:
1. e4

Now, let’s say Black also decided to move the pawn in front of the King two squares:
Step 1: Pawn move (no piece initial.) Step 2: No capture. Step 3: It is moving to square e5. In notation we would write this move after White’s like this:

1. e4 e5

Next, White moves the Knight on the King’s side in front of the Bishop:
kNight move, so the initial is N. No capture. Moving to square….. f3! It is White’s second move. We would write the whole game so far:

1. e4 e5
2. Nf3

Now Black decides to move his Queen’s Knight to protect his e5 pawn:
kNight move (N.) No capture. Move to square c6. Now we have:

1. e4 e5
2. Nf3 Nc6

Now let’s say White gets greedy, and decides to capture Black’s pawn:
This is a kNight move. It *is* making a capture (so we have the letter “x”!) The Knight lands on square e5. So this third move is written:

1. e4 e5
2. Nf3 Nc6
3. Nxe5

As we leave this interlude, look again at the diagram above. Black now has a chance to capture White’s Knight, only for having lost his e5 pawn. Can you figure out how to write that move?

(If you need a hint: It is a kNight move, capturing, and it moves into e5.)

Yes! It is *also* written “Nxe5″! But it’s Black’s move, so if Black captured the Knight, it would be:

1. e4 e5
2. Nf3 Nc6
3. Nxe5 Nxe5

As an exercise, you could take those three moves above and play them out on a chessboard.


3A. Is there two pieces of the same type that could reach the destination square?
Sometimes two identical pieces can move to a single square. (Without promotions having occurred, only Pawns, Knights, and Rooks can achieve this.)

Consider the position after the following moves of a made-up game: 1. e4 e5 2. d4 Nc6 3. f4 Nf6. You can look at diagram below:
The Black pawn on e5 is in trouble! Do you see how either the pawn on d4 or the pawn on f4 could take the e5 pawn? When pawns capture pieces, we always write which file the pawn starts on that is capturing a piece. If the White d Pawn captures the e Pawn, we would write it:
4. dxe5.
If the White f Pawn captured the e Pawn, we would write it:
4. fxe5.

Note that we always write the file of a pawn making a capture (remember from Step 2?) Consider this diagram from one of my games:
Black decided for his 7th move to take my d Pawn. Even though only the c pawn can make that capture, the move is recorded as:

7. …cxd4

(The Ellipsis – the funny “…” – means that I’m only showing the Black move here.)

But sometimes two other kinds of pieces can move to a square. For example, from another game:
It’s Black’s 19th move. I wanted to move a Rook to the e8 square. But can you see how either the “a Rook” or the “f Rook” could move to e8? How do we determine which Rook I actually moved there?

The rule is: “When two identical pieces can move to the same square, you can always identify a unique piece by either its Rank or File, and you write that starting Rank or File right after the piece name.” I decided to move my f-Rook to e8. So the move was recorded as:

19. …Rfe8.

(The translation of this is, “Rook f to e8.”)

Here’s one more example, with Ranks instead:
It is my 23rd move. Let’s say I wanted to move a Rook to g7 (the red square.)
If I moved the Rook on Rank 2 to g7, it would be written: 23. …R2g7
If I moved the Rook on Rank 8 to g7, it would be written: 23. …R8g7.

But note that if I wanted to move my g2 Rook to either of the yellow squares, I wouldn’t need to specify the rank – only the g2 Rook could go to either square. (It would be either Rxh2 or Rg1. I actually played 23. …Rg1 in that game.)

This noting-of-rank-or-file can only take place with Bishops or Queens if a promotion occurs. If that happens to you, you should write it the same way.

4. Castling!
Castling is the process when both the King and Rook get to move during the same move by a player. It’s the only time that two pieces get to move without an intervening move by the opponent. If you need review on it, here is a link to Wikipedia. Because two pieces move, recording a “destination square” doesn’t have much meaning.

For Kingside castling, record the move as “0-0″.
For Queenside castling, record the move as “0-0-0″.

To help you remember, the number of “0”‘s is the same number of squares the Rook moves.

The following diagram is reached from : 1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bc4 d6 4. Nc3 Bg4 5. b3 Qd7

Castles Galore on Move 6!

Castles Galore on Move 6!

White can now castle Kingside, and Black can castle Queenside. If the two sides do that, the moves are written: 6. 0-0 and then 6. … 0-0-0.

5. Is there a pawn promotion occuring? If so, what is the pawn being promoted to?
When a pawn reaches it’s last rank (8th rank for White, 1st rank for Black,) it promotes into any other piece except for a King (and it cannot stay as a pawn.)

Promotion is indicated writing the pawn move followed by an equals sign (“=”) and the piece it is being promoted to.

Look at the following diagram:

It's Promotion Time!

It's Promotion Time!

It is Black’s 30th move. White has just played 30. Rxa2. Black is now going to promote, and will promote to a Queen. Black can promote either by moving to b1 or by capturing the Knight at c1. This would be written on the scoresheet either as: 30. Rxa2 b1=Q, or 30. Rxa2 bxc1=Q+. (The plus sign is a way of saying Check – it’s in the next lesson.) Even though I should have taken the Knight, I made a small mistake and just moved 30. …b1=Q in my game.

While it makes no sense in this position to promote to any other piece, here are the other possibilities if Black moved into b1:

Rook: 30. … b1=R
Bishop: 30. … b1=B
Knight: 30. … b1=N

6. Does a move deliver check?
The hardest part is over!

If check occurs, it is written as a plus sign (“+”) after the move. It would always be the last thing written for a move.

Recently, a friend of mine and I started to play the Moscow Variation of the Sicilian Defense. The first two moves are: 1. e4 c5 2. Nf3 d6. Now he wants to play Bishop to b5 check:

Early in the Moscow Variation of the Sicilian Defense

Early in the Moscow Variation of the Sicilian Defense

This move is 3. Bb5+. I moved 3. …Bd7, forcing the exchange of Bishops. He replied: 4. Bxd7+. (He checked me again! How could he!) I then replied: 4. …Qxd7.

If you play out those moves:
1. e4 c5
2. Nf3 d6
3. Bb5+ Bd7
4. Bxd7+ Qxd7
Your board should look like this:

Sure, I traded Bishops!

Sure, I traded Bishops!

7. Does a move deliver checkmate?
Ah, checkmate! That which we all aim for in our games. Sweet victory!

Checkmate is noted with a pound sign (“#”) after writing the last move of the game. Consider the simple four-move checkmate we all dread ever happening to us:

1. f4 e6
2. g4 Qh4#

These moves should only be made by trained Chess Stuntmen.  Do not try them in your games at home!  ;)

These moves should only be made by trained Chess Stuntmen. Do not try them in your games at home! ;)

Oh noes! Checkmate!

8. What’s the final score?
This really isn’t a part of “notation,” exactly. But the final score of a game is usually the last thing entered in a game. It is always the last thing recorded in the computer format of, “Portable Game Notation,” or PGN. (PGN is nothing but Standard Algebraic Notation of a game, coupled with things like who was playing/where/ratings/etc. You can “read” a PGN game file without any special programs if you want to, and play through the moves.)

There are four possible results in a PGN file:

1-0 means White won.
0-1 means Black won.
1/2-1/2 means the game was a draw. Sometimes this is written by players as “.5-.5,” or just “.5″, the decimal for one half (1/2). But in PGN files it should always be “1/2-1/2″.
* means that the game did not end for some reason. Maybe it’s still being played, or the ending wasn’t recorded for some reason.

The other reason I mention it here, is that the result is usually written on the score sheet as well. While writing the checkmate move definitely shows who won, it’s not always clear if a player resigns. There is no “notation move” for a draw of any kind. So it’s good to write what the final result was, as well.

You now know everything you need to know in order to write your own games, and read games that have been played. Remember the steps to go through when you write your moves (I’m “promoting” steps 3A and 4, only because it is in the order that you would write it!):

4. Was it a castle?
1. Piece moving?
3A. Could the other identical piece have moved there?
2. Capture?
3. Moving to?
5. Promotion?
6. Check?
7. Checkmate?
8. What’s the final score?

With practice, you won’t even notice doing all these steps. You’ll just write out (or read), “e4, e5, Knight to f3, Knight to c6, Bishop to c4, Bishop to c5, Castle Kingside, Knight to f6, Knight to g5, Castle Kingside, Knight to c3, Knight takes on e4, Knight on g file takes on e4, Bishop to e7, Knight to d5, Knight to b4, Knight takes e7 check, Queen takes e7.” In fact, you can probably read and play through these moves right now! Try it:

1.e4 e5
2.Nf3 Nc6
3.Bc4 Bc5
4.0–0 Nf6
5.Ng5 0–0
6.Nc3 Nxe4
7.Ngxe4 Be7
8. Nd5 Nb4
9. Nxe7+ Qxe7

Here’s the board position, for you to compare to:

The last diagram!  Congratulations!

The last diagram! Congratulations!

You can now read and write in SAN! Good luck, and welcome to the next level of chess playing!

Enjoy your game!



BONUS: A replayable window of the positions and games above are now available at A downloadable PGN file of the games/diagrams are also available there.

FEEDBACK: I appreciate those who have provided feedback and corrections to this article. Feedback can be left here.

Those who have contributed corrections that have been made to the article will be noted here, upon request. Please include if you would like to be credited here, if a correction is published based on your correction. Include the name you want to be credited as.

CREDITS: Page author: Darren Erickson (LaughingVulcan.)

DISCLAIMERS: The examples listed in this page are solely for the purposes of demonstrating how notation works. I am still catching small errors in what I typed, up to this version. Games listed here are not intended to be best examples of play. Apply only externally, consult your physician before beginning any mental exercise routine, and the white zone is for loading and unloading only. :)