How to Read Algebraic Chess Notations

When you start getting into chess, especially competitively, you’ll notice that most publications record and review games and matches using a combination of numbers and letters.

Algebraic chess notation is a system made so that every part of the chessboard, including the pieces, has a unique coordinate assigned to it. Each square on the board can be named depending on the vertical columns with letters and horizontal rows with numbers. The pieces are assigned specific letters, except for the pawn.

When you know how to use this system, reviewing previous matches will be easier by looking at your scoresheet. There’s more to learn about how to read algebraic chess notations and that’s what this article is for, so keep reading!

Algebraic Chess Notation

Algebraic chess notation is the standard system to document a chess game. It can be confusing initially, but this is a vital part of the game because it helps you improve as a player and learn from past mistakes.

Board Symbols

Every square on a chessboard corresponds to a combination of letters and numbers. The system works similarly to a coordinate system where each place on the board has an assigned number and letter pair.

Each square’s files—or the vertical columns—are assigned a letter from a to h, while the ranks—or the horizontal rows—are assigned a number from 1 through 8.

These are all based on White’s point of view. That said, the letters are labeled from White’s Queenside to Kingside or from left to right.

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For example, if you point to the square where each side’s King stands, the White’s King is on “e1” while the Black’s piece is on “e8” on the board.

Notation Symbols for Pieces

Another important part of algebraic chess notation is knowing the symbols for all the pieces on the board. Each piece has its unique letter assigned to it, except for the pawn.

Below is a list of all the pieces and their corresponding letters:

  • King: K
  • Queen: Q
  • Bishop: B
  • Knight: N
  • Rook: R

Notice that the pawn doesn’t have a letter assigned to it. Unlike the other pieces, the absence of a symbol for the piece is how players identify each pawn.

Now that you know the symbols for places on the board and all of the pieces, you can now read the simplest combinations on a scoresheet.

For example, if you see the notation “Ne3”, that means the Knight piece moved to e3 on the board. If a pawn moves to that same spot, the notation would simply be e3.

Notation Symbols for Moves

Knowing the symbols for both the board and the pieces is the basic part of reading algebraic chess notation. Now that you’re familiar with the basics, it’s time to learn the corresponding symbols for every move a player can make.

These symbols are the ones that make the other letters and numbers come alive.

  • Capture: x
  • Check: +
  • En passant: ep
  • Castling: 0-0 for Kingside or 0-0-0 for Queenside
  • Checkmate: ++ or #
  • Pawn promotion: e.g, a8=Q (This means white promotes his a-pawn to a queen on the 8th rank)

To record a capture, we can write “Nxd5,” indicating that the Knight captured a piece at d5.

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The rest of the symbols, except castling, are added at the end of each notation symbol. For instance, to record a checkmate after a move, we can write “d4 ++” or “d4 #.”

Note that sometimes these symbols may vary, depending on which rules you follow. According to the International Chess Federation (FIDE)’s official algebraic notation, castling moves use zeros or “0-0.”

Others, like the Portable Game Notation (PGN), use the capital letter O for castling, like “O-O.”

Most of the other moves are pretty self-explanatory, apart from en passant. En passant is a chess rule that allows a pawn to capture an opponent’s pawn diagonally, as if the opponent’s pawn had only moved one square forward instead of two.

For example, we interpret “bxa3 (ep)” as a pawn moving from b4 to a3 to capture the enemy pawn that had just moved 2 squares forward as if the enemy pawn had only moved to a3.  

bxa3 (ep)

Other Symbols

Aside from the board, pieces, and moves, there are other symbols you might encounter on a scoresheet. Most of which are punctuation marks, like the exclamation point and the question mark.

Below are some of the most common:

  • Good move: !
  • Excellent move: !!
  • Bad move: ?
  • Terrible move: ??
  • Interesting move: !?

You’ll find that these symbols don’t have anything to do with the player’s specific moves, but more with the reactions or opinions of the annotator. Sometimes these symbols are added after a move.

For example, if “Qxd5 !” appears on a scoresheet, it indicates that the Queen captured the pawn at d5 and that the annotator considers this as a good move.

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Recording Chess Matches

Using algebraic chess notation is almost always required, especially during professional chess tournaments. You might wonder: Who records each player’s every move?

In most tournaments, the players record their moves on a scoresheet. The sheet must always be visible to the game’s arbiter.

In most classic chess tournaments, the recording of moves is required. However, for Rapid or Blitz chess competitions, recording is no longer required because players usually have short time controls for every move.

Each game is recorded using a scoresheet, typically with two columns: one for White moves and one for Black. It also records who won the game.

At the very bottom, there’s a space for the signature of both players to countersign after the game. These are usually considered the official record of a chess game.

It’s essentially a play-by-play, complete with every move a player made as well as the outcome.

Final Thoughts

Chess notation symbols may seem overly complicated to the untrained eye, but it’s one of the most useful methods for recording any game. It helps many players review score sheets to get an overview of previous strategies and see which work and which don’t.

Knowing how to read algebraic chess notations is an essential skill to continue improving in the sport. It’s relatively simpler than it first appears.

All you have to do is familiarize yourself with the coordinate pairs for each square on the chessboard. Then, you have to know the symbols that correspond to each piece.

From there, it’s just a matter of understanding the symbols for every move, like “x” for capture and “++” or “+” for checkmate.