Chess notation is the way to write down chess moves. The usual way in modern chess is to use “algebraic chess notation” which uses letters a-h for the files (from White’s left to right), and the numbers 1-8 for the ranks (starting nearest the White player). The a-h letters and 1-8 numbers are from White’s perspective, even when Black is writing down the game.
This algebraic notation is the method we will describe. There are older types of alternative chess notations called “classical chess notation”. Occasionally you’ll see an (older!) player using the classical chess notation.
Algebraic Chess Notation
So the usual King Pawn Openings where both players move up their King pawns two squares means that White has moved their pawn to the “e4” square (from the “e2” square), and Black has moved their pawn to the “e5” square (from the “e7” square).
Diagram: Double King Pawn Opening
So the long-form way to write these moves down would be:
- 1. Pe2-e4 Pe7-e5
This uses “P” for the pawn. And shows the starting and ending squares for the move. A dash letter is used to signify the movement. (Other punctuation letters are sometimes used.)
Lower-case letters are typically used. You could write “PE2-E4” or “PE7-E5” if you like, but it’s not the usual style.
Letters for the Pieces
The “P” can mean pawn. The letters used for all the pieces are:
Note that the “N” is used for “Knight” rather than “K” (which means King). Just don’t tell your English teacher about that! (Actually you can use “Kt” as short for Knight rather than “N” if you like, but that’s the old style.)
The piece letters are written in upper case. And both Black and White pieces use the same upper case letters for the pieces.
Shortening the Notations
- 1. e2-e4 e7-e5
So if you want to write a game with Scholar’s Mate, you get:
- 1. e2-e4 e7-e5
- 2. Bf1-c4 Nb8-c6
- 3. Qd1-h5 Ng8-f6
- 4. Qh5xf7 checkmate
Diagram: Scholar’s Mate
So you’ll notice a few things about these notations:
- Pawn moves don’t use “P”. But the Queen is “Q”, Bishop is “B” and Knights are “N”.
- Captures are “x” rather than “-“. This is optional. If you take a piece with a move, you can use “x” or “X” to signify a capture. (But it’s optional. You could just write white “Qh5-f7 checkmate” too. The fact that it’s a capture is then implied from the board position).
This above set of moves is pretty complex and wordy. There are a lot of ways that this is actually shortened in practice. For starters, the main way is that the starting square (origination square) and the dash character is often omitted from the move, only the destination square is written:
- 1. e4 e5
- 2. Bc4 Nc6
- 3. Qh5 Nf6
- 4. Qxf7 checkmate
The “x” capture symbol can also be omitted. The last move could just be written “Qf7”. But some players prefer to leave the “x” in, as it makes the scoresheet a bit more readable.
Capture Moves: It is optionally allowed to state the piece being captures, although it is usually omitted. For example, if you are swapping queens from d1 to d8, you could write “Qd1xd8” without the piece (the usual way), or you can also specify what you’re taking via “Qd1xQd8”. A similar notation called “Reversible Algebraic Notation” actually requires the captured piece to be specified, but the usual human-written notation does not.
Ambiguous Notation: If there is some ambiguity by leaving out the starting square, then it must be included. For example, if you play “e4” and “Nc3”, then you have two Knights on c3 and g1 (it’s starting square). If White’s next move is to move a Knight to e2, then you cannot write “Ne2” because it’s ambiguous as to which Knight is moving. Suppose that you moved “Ng1-e2”. You can resolve the ambiguity in the chess notation by any of these methods that specify the starting square fully, or just the starting file (letter), or the starting square’s number (rank):
Pawn Capture Notation
Diagram: Center Counter
- 1. e4 d5
- 2. e4xd5 …
Note first that we don’t need to use a “P” as in “Pe4xd5”. And that it’s usually lower case, although we could also write upper case “E4xD5” if preferred.
But the pawn capture is a bit long, since we specified the starting square “e4”. But we cannot just omit the “e4” square, as writing just “d5” is a bit unclear (it looks like a Black move). So pawn captures can be abbreviated to partially avoid specifying the starting square. The abbreviations allowed include:
- e4xd5 (the full way)
- e4d5 (omits the “x”)
- exd5 (omits the “4”)
- ed5 (omits the “x” and “4”)
- ed (the shortest way)
Any of these are fine. It is personal preference whether you write “e4xd5” or “ed” or something in between. Note that you cannot write a pawn capture that is ambiguous, as occasionally, if there are two possible pawn captures matching “ed” then you need to write it a bit more verbose like “e4d5”.
Bad Handwriting: there’s sometimes a problem with chess notation that some letters look similar: “c” and “e” look similar in handwriting. The written moves “c4” and “e4” can be confused. Sometimes there’s confusion between a move like “Re8” vs “Rc8”. There’s not much to be done to resolve this, just use neat handwriting!
Special Move Notations
Special Moves: There are 3 special types of moves with special notations:
Castling is written in a weird way using “O” characters. King-side castling is written as “O-O” (two O’s), whereas Queenside castling is written as “O-O-O” (three O’s). That’s the modern way. The older style was to write “Castles” or “Castles K”/”Castles Q” (to specify which side).
For castling, it doesn’t really matter whether the O’s are upper case or lower case They can even be zeroes. The dashes can be omitted for brevity: “OO” and “OOO” if you prefer. It only matters whether there are 2 or 3 circles.
Pawn promotions are written using an “=” and then the new piece name. So “e8=Q” means that you moved from “e7-e8” and then made a Queen. Usually a capital letter is used for the promoted piece, but lower case would be ok too: “e8=q”. The equal sign could be left out too with “e8Q” but that’s not usual. You could even possibly leave out the suffix completely and just write “e8” thereby assuming a Queen promotion, but it’s not the usual notation style. More common is “e8=Q”.
Pawn promotions that result from pawn captures also simply add the “=Q” suffix. So we can get moves like “e7xf8=Q”, or other versions of pawn capture notations. Using the shortest one, it could just be “ef=Q”.
Underpromotions are signified by a different piece letter. You can write: “e8=N”, “e8=B”, “e8=R” or “e8=Q”. Captures with underpromotions would be like “e7xf8=R” or “ef=R”.
En Passant Moves
En Passant: an en passant pawn capture could be written without any special notation. You could just write “e5xd6” (or the shorter “ed” style) where it’s clear from the board position and move history that it’s an en passant move. But the usual style is an explicit mention of this weird rule, so people usually put “(en passant)” or “(e.p.)” in brackets after the move. The most common style is: “e5xd5 (e.p.)” or “ed (e.p.)”.
Special Notations and Symbols
Special Symbols: There are a number of special symbols used in the written record of the game.
- Dashes: the moves to a square are (optionally) signified by a “-“ character: “e2-e4”. Some people like to use colons (“:”) instead of dashes: “e2:e4” style. The dash or other char is optional: “e2e4” is fine.
- Captures: a capture is optionally signified by a “x” character.
- Checks (+): If a move is a check, you can put a “+” after the move, which means check.
- Checkmate: a move that causes a checkmate can be written as a “#” which means checkmate. Or you can just write out “checkmate” or “mate”.
- Resigns: if a player resigns you can write “Resigns” on the move.
- Draws: a draw is often written as “1/2-1/2” but you can also just write “draw” or “drawn”.
- Draw offers: if either player offers a draw, you are supposed to record it on the sheet with a “*” character, if the offer is not accepted.
- Win/Loss: the result of the game is often written at the bottom of the scoresheet after the last move as “1-0” (White wins) or “0-1” (Black wins)
- Stalemate: just write “stalemate” or ½-½ on the sheet.
- Spaces: whitespace in the chess notation doesn’t usually matter. If you write “e2 e4” instead of “e2-e4” then it’s still basically the same. There are probably some cases where a space makes it more ambiguous, and spaces are usually avoided.
This is the English language system for chess notation. There is a lot of differences in various other countries and other languages.
Other Types of Chess Notation
There are also other types of chess notations. The modern chess algebraic notation is actually relatively recent, and a lot of older chess books use the older style notations. Other chess notations include:
- Classical Chess Notation: the older style that is also called “Descriptive Chess Notation”.
- Reversible Algebraic Notation
Computer programs use some other more rigorous and concise formats for storing and sharing chess games and chess positions. For example, there is PGN (Portable Game Notation) and FEN Diagrams.
Related Chess Rules Topics
Read more about these related chess rules, chess puzzles, and other chess tactics and strategies: