Kindred’s Special: The Notation Story

What is the history of chess notation and how did it evolve into today’s universal algebraic system and for what reasons? In a nutshell, it replaced what basically was many national descriptive systems. The problemists were delighted for obvious reasons pointing out the advantages of each square having a designated name. The literary world love it because it was in essence a universal language all chess players could relate to and thus launch chess books and magazines into the international arena.

A friend at the time of USCF adopting it for Chess Life said he was dropping out of chess if they persisted. He did so. He learned to play using the reading English Descriptive notation and was not about to try and learn a new form. Besides, he said it would cause havoc with readers who would find viewing the small letters confusing. Too old to change his stripes as how he put it! He said that children print and record moves more accurately using capital letters and see the board the same way from either side of the board when recording moves. There are still those who prefer using it to record their own games or enjoy their chess library containing literature in descriptive notation.

You can lead a horse to water but cannot force it to drink.

The history of Descriptive notation progressed over time from the rather cumbersome 1. Pawn to King’s Fourth to 1.Pawn to King Four, to 1.P-K4. Thus, the dash replaced the word “to”. Also, each side counted the board the same from either side. White’s 1.P-K4 could be responded by black 1.P-K4 P-K4, and to add a few moves for further illustration: 2.Kt-KB3 Kt-QB3, 3.B-B4 B-B4 4.P-Q3 P-Q3 5.Kt-B3 Kt-B3 6.0-0 0-0. The files were named after the pieces lined up at the start of play on their first rank and ranks were numbered from each side 1 through 8. In the early days, common was R=Rook, Kt=Knight, B=Bishop,K=King, Q=Queen, P=Pawn. Eventually a big debate over the usage of N for Knight, replacing Kt adorned the pages of Chess Review. The advancement of chess notation rested largely with tinkering innovators mocking the status quo. Other nations have their own symbols too. For example, the German notation adopted my many in Europe was R=King, T=Rook, S=Knight, L=Bishop, D=Queen. These were used in algebraic notation that had been developed in parts of European chess circles.

Advantages of the algebraic system of notation are obvious so far as the literary world is concerned. There have been some problems seen however as with any system of recording. Humans make mistakes. How often do you find a score sheet unreadable? What a headache for organizers who want copies of game scores for publication!

Years ago the USA had a national telephone team league. One of the runners responsible for retrieving and forwarding the board moves wrote down for example e4 when the move played was c4 on the board. Which end got it wrong is hard to say. This error was not caught for several moves until both masters involved realized something was amiss which angered them for having wasted so much time already on the game. How easy it is for a handwritten c to look like an e. Readers not able to see small type very well likely will experience problems with letters like e-c-b-d-h.

No matter what system of recording moves is used, it rests with the players to try and record moves legibly and accurately. One of the best ways to do that is to write down the move you play as soon as you press your clock and likewise when your opponent moves. By definition, one can say that a recorded move is one that was seen played on the board.

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