Don’t Disregard Descriptive Notation

When I was a youth, all of the chess books and chess magazines used descriptive notation. Algebraic notation didn’t really appear much until the 1980s and 1990s.

There was a time when I preferred descriptive notation. That was simply because I was unfamiliar with algebraic notation and I found the symmetry of descriptive notation appealing. When learning openings, for example, expressing the moves by naming squares from the perspective of the moving player was more intuitive to me. To say each player moved P-K4 and then white played N-KB3 and black followed with N-QB3 was easier for me to visualize. To be candid, I still find descriptive notation easier to visualize for openings.

Algebraic notation is now the norm. Some younger players don’t even know how to read descriptive notation. They grew up with algebraic notation. I’ve read many threads on message boards with younger players complaining about old books written in descriptive notation. Some even refuse to learn descriptive notation. My advice to chess improvers: don’t disregard descriptive notation.

I prefer algebraic notation, too. When I find a “classic” text or e-book is only available in descriptive notation, it’s disappointing. Why? I find that as I play through a game, I can more easily make a mistake with the moves when they’re recorded in descriptive notation. Each square has an unambiguous name in algebraic notation. Whether a move is recorded for white or black, the square c1 is exactly the same square in algebraic notation. Descriptive notation gives each square two names.

English-speaking players who avoid or refuse to learn descriptive notation isolate themselves from some truly great chess books. A recent example that I purchased for my Kindle is Chess Master vs. Chess Amateur by Max Euwe and Walter Meiden. This is a great book that can be read profitably by lower-rated chess improvers. Like many of the old Dover Chess books, it is still available only in descriptive notation. Even the Kindle version is just a copy of the original. It’s not updated to algebraic notation.

Chess Master vs. Chess Amateur is a “move-by-move” chess book. Players unwilling to learn descriptive notation or read books that use it could argue there are lots of good “move-by-move” books available in algebraic notation and those have more recent games. Why bother with Chess Master vs. Chess Amateur? One reason is Max Euwe’s clear and concise prose. The better reason is the nature of the games. One player is a master. The other player is much weaker. Euwe points out the errors made by the weaker player and – more important – he points out how a stronger player exploits those errors. This is a great book for the lower-rated player to learn how to exploit common mistakes. It’s only available in descriptive notation.

Another example, this one for the stronger chess improver, is Hans Kmoch’s Pawn Power in Chess. This is another “classic” this is available only in descriptive notation. I find this book to be the single most annoying chess book I’ve ever read. (You can read my editorial comments here: That’s because Kmoch gets completely carried away creating terminology. The prose is so poorly written that I ended up more than once throwing the paperback across the room in frustration. (I’m not exaggerating about throwing the &#!$ book.)  Once you get past the truly goofy terminology and bad prose, the substance of the book is absolutely critical for chess mastery. This is another chess “classic” that’s available only in descriptive notation.

If you want to have access to the fullest range of chess books to improve your game, it’s a good idea to be comfortable with both algebraic and descriptive chess notation.

Glenn Mitchell