How to Read Descriptive Notation

Why bother learning Descriptive Notation in the first place?

My dad bought me The Soviet School of Chess after finding a copy in Strand Bookstore for $1. It was my second chess book, so I had to learn Descriptive Notation early on!
I had to learn Descriptive Notation early on; my dad saw The Soviet School of Chess in Strand Bookstore near his job. Not great for a beginner, but it was $1!

There isn’t much use for Descriptive Notation (1. P—K4, 2. N—KB3) these days. Chess books long ago moved to Algebraic Notation (1.e4, 2.Nf3), not to mention chess websites, magazines, and apps.

If you want to read classic chess literature, however, learn to read DN. A lot of instructive books from the past have not been “translated” into AN. Some classics that have been reissued in AN were mangled badly in the process! The new edition of Basic Chess Endings is more exception than rule.

If you want to read great authors of the past like Euwe or Znosko-Borovsky, you need to learn this old “language.”

Naming the Pieces and Pawns in DN

They’re the same as in algebraic, except we name the pawns as you will soon see.

K=King, Q=Queen, R=Rook, B=Bishop, N=Knight, P=Pawn.

In some books, Kt is used for Knight, instead of N.


Special Moves

As with algebraic notation, “x” is used for a capture, castling is written 0-0 or 0-0-0, and “+” is check. Some old books will use “ch” for check; no big deal.


Files in Descriptive Notation

Take the starting position:

The file where the kings start is called the King (K) file.

The file where the queens start is called the Queen (Q) file.

Not too bad, right? Let’s continue.

Both sides have two each of bishops, knights, and rooks. How do we not mix them up? The files closest to where the queen starts get the prefix “Queen,” and the files closest to where the king starts get the prefix “King.”

Firstly, the file in green is the Queen Rook (QR) file.

Secondly, the file in yellow is the Queen Knight (QN) file.

Finally, the file in red is the Queen Bishop (QB) file.


Firstly, the file in green is the King Rook (KR) file.

Secondly, the file in yellow is the King Knight (KN) file.

Finally, the file in red is the King Bishop (KB) file.


The trickiest part

I think the main reason people get confused with DN is the orientation of the chessboard.

With algebraic notation, the 1st rank is white’s back rank, and the 8th rank is black’s back rank.

In descriptive notation, both sides have a 1st rank and 8th rank! This means every square has TWO addresses, not one!

In the starting position:

White’s king starts on his own K1 square, and black’s king also starts on his K1 square.

White’s king is on black’s K8 square, and black’s king is on white’s K8 square.

Another example:

The square in red has two names:

From white’s perspective it is the Queen Bishop 5 square (QB5).

From black’s perspective it is the Queen Bishop 4 square (QB4).


Let’s Practice with DN

We’ll reach a typical opening position, one move pair at a time.

1.P—K4 P—QB4

White’s pawn has moved to it’s K4 square, and black’s pawn has moved to its QB4 square.

2.N—KB3 N—QB3

White has moved a knight to KB3. writing “B3” is not enough, because he also has a QB3 square. For black it’s the same, in reverse. You have to specify which B3 square the knight moves to if there is a choice.

3. P—Q4 PxP

White moves a pawn to Q4, the only one that can go there. Black captures with a pawn. We can just say PxP because black has only one pawn that can capture, and white has only one pawn that can be captured. We don’t need to say, for example, “BPxP,” “QBPxP,” or “PxQP.” Sometimes, with more than one possible capture, we need to be more, well, descriptive!

4.NxP N—B3

White has only one knight that can capture one possible pawn, so writing NxP is enough.

Black has only one knight that can go to a B3 square as the other B3 square is already occupied, so we can write N—B3 instead of N—KB3.

5.N—QB3 P—Q3 

Here we have to be specific and write N—QB3 because N—B3 is ambiguous: the N on Q4 could move back to KB3 as well!

Black has only one pawn that can go to Q3.

6.B—KN5 P—K3

White has two bishops that can go to a N5 square. We name the square, rather than the piece if possible. So we write B—KN5 and NOT QB—N5, because we are choosing one of two destination squares, as the two bishops cannot reach the same squares.

With rooks or knights, however, it’s common to name the flank the piece comes from when there’s a choice of pieces that can go to one destination square. For example, QN—Q2 vs. KN—Q2, or QR—K1 vs. KR—K1.

7.Q—Q2 B—K2

Nothing ambiguous about these two moves.

8.0—0—0 0—0

Castling is notated the same as in algebraic. Some really old books will write “Castles” or, if there is a choice of which side to castle on, “Castles K” or “Castles Q.” These are pretty self-explanatory, though.


Conclusions about Descriptive Notation

Look, I understand why DN isn’t used anymore…it’s clunky and a relic from the past! Still, some people have an irrational fear or hatred of DN, and I hope this guide helps more people read classic chess literature. Play through a handful of games and you will pick up DN!

Author: Andre Harding

Since 2003 I've taught chess to thousands of students in public, private, and charter schools in the New York City area, and have given countless private lessons. I also direct USCF- and FIDE-rated chess tournaments.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *