Tuesday, December 07, 2004

Algebraic Versus Descriptive Chess Notation

Bill Keezer asks:

Question, it has been years since I did chess from notation. Current notation looks at the board from the white side and a-h, left to right, and 1-8 white to black. Also, unless it is ambiguous, one doesn't mention the starting location and never the piece. Correct or no? I once was a fairly serious player in high school and grad school. Little or no skill now.

1. There are two main styles of chess notation, algebraic and descriptive. Both are current, though algebraic is the dominant style. The serious player must know both in order to be able to study old books in which descriptive is used. Some of the classics, however, are now out in algebraic editions.

2. There are different styles of algebraic notation, short, long, and hybrid. The descriptive 1. P-K4 is rendered in algebraic variously as 1. e4, 1. e2-e4, 1. Pe4, 1. P-e4. Therefore, one may in algebraic notation mention the starting position and the piece. And, as you realize, in algebraic notation there are situations in which one must mention the starting position. It might be necessary to write Ra8d8 if the other rook can move to d8. There are also situations in which the piece must be mentioned. Suppose White plays e8. A promotion must occur, but not necessarily to a Queen. Suppose an underpromotion, to a Knight say, enforces mate. Then we write e8 = N.

3. It is possible to mix algebraic with descriptive. This is what I do for efficiency, especially when in Zeitnot (time trouble). Instead of writing B x f3, I may write B x N.

4. The main difference between descriptive and algebraic is that the former involves an indexical element lacking in the latter. In descriptive, each square has two designations, one from White's point of view, the other from Black's. Thus f4 is KB4 from White's perspective, but KB5 from Black's. I suppose this is a main reason why algebraic notation is preferred.

5. The Yetman Brothers' Descriptive Chess Magazine is one of the last holdouts of descriptive notation. If you are ever down Tucson way, drop by their Desert Paradise Chess Club, and tell 'em that WildAzBill sent you. Ed Yetman III, a true Arizona character, is hard to miss with his railroad cap and red bandanna. He may or may not have his sidearm strapped to his waist.