The Great Chess Notation Rift: Why I never became a Grand Master

I have given up chess four times since I left school. Each coincided with a change of geographical location. Maybe I was never completely serious about quitting, because for every physical move, most of my collection of chess books came with me.

Today, inspection of what remains of my mini-library reveals a secret of an archaeological kind.

The great schism

A great schism occurred towards the end of the last century. Before the disruption lies the age of descriptive notation, after it the era of algebraic notation.

It is still found in movies n which typically a player, perhaps the villain, will say in suitably sinister tones. “Pawn to the king’s fourth”. This is accompanied by a dramatic move forward of a central pawn.

to which the hero might reply “Pawn to the king’s forth”.

A non-chess player might exclaim “Oi! He’s just done that move!”

Indeed. Well spotted. If the game was being recorded the moves would have been written as

1 P-K4  P-K4

In this notation, each player writes the move from his or her perspective. No puzzle. Bergman’s Knight would have pushed the Pawn in front of the king two squares up the board. Death would have pushed the Pawn in from of his own king also two square ‘up’ the board. Don’t get that Knight confused with a common or garden chess knight, though.

This is the basis of the descriptive notation I was taught as a schoolboy and how I still think. Almost all of my chess books and magazines until around 1980 were written in that notation. Flicking through the pages of one, I am now astonished at how simple the system is.

The early descriptive form

It is easily traced to its ancestor, the early descriptive form, found in the great handbook of the 1880s by the English champion Howard Staunton. In that form it was rather more laborious to write down.

I took down my own prized copy nostalgically, to remind myself of the notaion. Opening it at random. I found a typical game,  was being described. In those days, compression was ignored, and the first moves I came across were

K.B. to Q.Kt’s 5th 10. P to Q.R.’s 3

I was taught to write these moves as

10 B-Kt5  P-QR3

Enter the algrebraic format

But Staunton’s descriptive approach already had a rival in other parts of the world where ian algebraic version. This got away from the apparent Anglo-Saxon silliness of having pieces apparently being moved on the same square.

In algebraic, all the squares were numbered in a grid starting at a1, the (bottom left as white would see it, top right as black could see it) to h8, the square closest to black’s left hand

Staunton’s early notation would have changed from

K.B. to Q.Kt’s 5th 10. P to Q.R.’s 3


10 Bb5  a6

You can see the advantages in using the algebraic system.

In the 1980s, the international chess body FIDE announced that all official games were to be recorded using it. This monstrous denial of human rights left a generation of British players struggling to sort out their a5s from their QR4s.

It must be said that FIDE has from time to time shown tendencies found in their football equivalent FIFA, but that’s another story.

Reluctantly, all chess publishes that had preferred the descriptive notation began to accept the in algebraic notation.

The consequences are there to be seen on my book shelves. Only a few dear favourites remain in descriptive formats. Many were discarded and replaced in the great defoliation era of the 1980s. The latest I can find is the classic My Memorable Games by Bobby Fischer, published in 1972.

From then on its algebraic all the way. It turned out to be far more convenient for pesky computers to manipulate chess data, which is another story.

Impeding my progress to world champion

Meanwhile, mentally stunned, most of my contemporaries mutter to themselves in descriptive dialect before writing down the moves in algebraic. We do so slowly, and often wrongly. My own scoresheet still often shows numerous corrections, still ending up looking as if I have played a different game from my opponent

It is one reason I never became a grandmaster. The other is a lack of talent. But that’s another story.


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