Classical Chess Notation

Classical chess notation, also called “Descriptive Chess Notation”, is the older-style of chess notation. The modern style is “Algebraic Chess Notation” which is used in most modern writings. A lot of older chess books use the Classical Chess Notation style.

When recording your chess moves in a chess tournament, most players use algebraic notation. But you are actually allowed to use Classical Chess Notation if you prefer.

Piece Names in Classical Notation

The classical notation uses these names for the pieces:

Differences between Classical and Algebraic Notation

There are two differences with algebraic notation:

  • Kt rather than N is used for Knight. That’s the very old style. Somewhat newer forms of the classical notation use “N” for Knight, but use the rest of the classical system.
  • P is not omitted. You have to specify “P” for Pawn.

Square Numbering

The classical notation differs in how the squares are represented:

  • Files are named rather than using letters “a-h”
  • Ranks are “1-8” but are numbered from each player’s perspective (whereas in the algebraic notation Black’s numbering is from White’s perspective).

The classical notation names the files as:

  • R: Rook file: “a” or “h”
  • Kt (or N): Knight file: “b” or “g”
  • B: Bishop: “c” or “f”
  • Q: Queen file: “d”
  • K: King file: “e”

In moves where this is ambiguous, the file is specified as either Queenside (“Q”) or Kingside (“K”) as follows:

  • QR: Queen Rook file: “a”
  • QKt (or QN): Queen Knight file: “b”
  • QB: Queen Bishop: “c”
  • Q: Queen file: “d”
  • K: King file: “e”
  • KB: King Bishop: “f”
  • KKt (or KN): King Knight file: “g”
  • KR: King Rook file: “h”

Capture Moves

Captures are written differently in the classical system. The algebraic system specifies the square that we captured. The classical system specifies the piece that was taken, rather than the square. For example, we can simply write:

  • P x P (“Pawn takes Pawn”)
  • Kt x Q (“Knight takes Queen”)

Example Game

Let’s try an example. So, if we specify the moves for the Double King Pawn Opening, we get in algebraic notation:

  • 1. e4 e5

Diagram: Double King Pawn

But in classical notation, this is written as:

  1. 1. P-K4 P-K4

Both moves are said as “Pawn to King Four”. Note that we use “P” rather than leave it blank, and that the Black move uses “K4” (from Black’s perspective) rather than “e5” (from White’s perspective).

Another Example: Scholar’s Mate

If we write Scholar’s Mate in algebraic notation, we get:

  • 1. e4 e5
  • 2. Bc4 Nc6
  • 3. Qh5 Nf6
  • 4. Qxf7 checkmate

Diagram: Scholar’s Mate

In classical notation, the same moves are written as:

  • 1. P-K4 P-K4
  • 2. B-B4 N-QB3
  • 3. Q-R5 N-B3
  • 4. QxKBP checkmate

Notice that we used “N” for Knight rather than “Kt”. The Kt style is common in older books, but somewhat more recent books use “N” even in the classical notation.

Notice how ambiguities are resolved. Note that for White’s second move we wrote “B-B4” (rather than needing “B-QB4”) because it wasn’t ambiguous, but Black’s second move we had to write “N-QB3” rather than just “N-B3” because there are two Knights that could move to the “Bishop 3” square.

Notice also that we had a capture. We could have written it more simply as “QxP” (“Queen Takes Pawn”) but that would have been ambiguous as the White Queen has three pawns it can take. So we specify the “KBP” (“King Bishop Pawn”) is being captured, to avoid ambiguity.

If we have to read out the above moves, it would be said like:

  • 1. P-K4 P-K4 (“Pawn to King Four, Pawn to King Four”)
  • 2. B-B4 N-QB3 (“Bishop to Bishop Four, Knight to Queen Bishop Three”)
  • 3. Q-R5 N-B3 (“Queen to Rook Five, Knight to Bishop Three”)
  • 4. QxKBP checkmate (“Queen Takes King Bishop Pawn Checkmate”)

Ambiguity Resolution Details

Ambiguities in these moves can arise, and are resolved in a few ways. If two pieces can move, we can specify a “Q” (Queen) or “K” (Kingside) piece. For example, we could have:

  • P-KR3 (if “P-R3” would be ambiguous as either rook pawn could move up)
  • QR-Q1 (“Queen Rook to Queen 1” rather than the other kingside rook)
  • B-QB4 (“Bishop to Queen Bishop 4”)
  • N(B3)-K5 (“Knight Bishop Three to King Five”, fully resolving ambiguity by specifying the starting square of the Knight.)
  • R(2)-K4 (“Rook Two to King Four”, e.g. if both rooks are on the King file, one’s on K1 the other’s on K7, we cannot specify QR vs KR, so we use the rank number.)
  • R x P(2) (“Rooks Takes Pawn Two”, e.g. if there were two pawns a Rook could take.)
  • R x RP (“Rook Takes Rook Pawn”)
  • R x QRP (“Rook Takes Queen Rook Pawn” if “RxRP” would be ambiguous as there were two rook pawns that a rook could take)
  • R x QRP(2) (“Rook Takes Queen Rook Pawn Two” if there were two Queen Rook Pawns that a Rook could take.)

Notice an odd difference for Bishops: we usually use “B-QB4” rather than “KB-B4” to resolve ambiguity. The “QB” and “KB” ideas get a bit tricky if the dark-squared bishop (QB) is on the kingside and the light-squared (KB) is on the queen-side.

Castling

Castling Moves: in the classical notation, the castles move can be written out fully or use the 0-0 notation:

  • Castles” (if unambiguous which side, only one side is possible)
  • “0-0” or “Castles K” (kingside castling: pronounced “Castles King” or “Castles King Rook”)
  • “0-0-0” or “Castles Q” (“Castles Queen” or “Castles Queen Rook”)

Pawn Promotion

Pawn promotion is similar in classical notation to that in algebraic notation. Instead of “e8=Q” we might write:

  • P-K8=Q
  • P-K8 (=Q)

If a pawn capture also involves a promotion, we might write:

  • P x R (=Q)
  • P x KR (=Q)

Underpromotion would written using the piece names. The only difference is that we could write either “Kt” or “N” for Knight.

Other Special Notations

Special Symbols: Other features of the classical notation include:

  • Movement is indicated with a dash (“-“) and is not usually omitted.
  • Captures are indicated with an “x” letter, but there is often spaces around it (“B x P” rather than “BxP”).
  • Check is indicated with “ch” (rather than “+”)
  • Checkmate is written “checkmate” or “mate” (rather than “#” or other abbreviation)
  • Good move is “!” or “!!” and bad move is “?” or “??” (same as algebraic notation)
  • En passant is often written with a suffix “(e.p.)” after the move.

So the classical chess notation system is a nice, unambiguous system. It works well and players such as Bobby Fischer have used it successfully. But modern junior players and modern chess books tend to prefer the Algebraic Notation.

Related Chess Rules Topics

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