The Language of Chess

When I utter the words “algebraic notation” to a classroom full of beginning chess players, their eyes grow wide with terror. Hearing the word “algebraic” tends to have a similar effect on adults. While I love mathematics, I can appreciate how frightening the words “algebraic notation” can be to those who don’t yet know the language of chess. For most people, young and old alike, anything remotely mathematical sounds like an excursion into the waters of boredom and grief. However, algebraic notation is the language of chess and this may be the most brilliant form of language ever created because of its simplicity. For you non-math types, let me start by saying that no algebra is required to speak the language of chess. The word “algebraic” is used only to reference the use of letters and numbers together.

I have to inspire my students to learn this special language so I’ll tell them that most languages require years to master (and lots of homework). Then I’ll ask the question “how would you like to learn a language that takes less than two hours to master?” When my students “crunch the numbers”, our chess class code for closely examining my proposition, they agree to give it a try. To further solidify my point, I write out the first two moves of a chess game descriptively. By descriptively, I mean “on move one we’re going to take the pawn that is two squares up from the bottom of the board and five squares over from the left side of the board and move it two squares up towards the center of the board.” After a few more descriptive moves I comment on the fact that a single game of chess might require thirty pages of such sentences to accurately describe it. I finally ask, holding up a piece of paper folded in half, “what if I told you that I could accurately record an entire game of chess on this half sheet of paper?” Done deal, I have their undivided attention. Now we get down to business.

To understand the language of chess, we have to briefly talk about the chessboard. A chessboard consists of 64 alternating light and dark squares (32 light and 32 dark). We can further divide the chessboard into ranks and files (diagonals are discussed in a separate lesson). Ranks run left to right across the chessboard and are numbered one through eight. Files run up and down the chessboard and are labeled “a” through “h.” I use roll up tournament boards in my classes and recommend them for home use because the numbers and letters of the rank and file system are printed on the board’s outer edges. Each rank is eight squares wide and each file is eight squares in length.

Using these numbers and letters, we can assign an individual address to each of the 64 squares. Just as our house or school has its own unique address, each square on a chessboard likewise has its own unique address. To find a square’s address, we simply connect the file and the rank. Unfortunately, the term “rank and file” has been embedded into western culture so students will sometimes think “number before letter.” To curb this problem, I introduce the term “alpha numeric” or letter before number. If I asked you to find the square e4, you would start by finding the e file and then the forth rank. The square on which the e file and forth rank intersects is the square e4. At the start of each beginner’s class, I ask students to point out specific squares such as f3, c7, f7, h8 or c5. Once the chessboard’s address system has been mastered, we move on the second half of learning the language of chess, piece symbols and action symbols.

Each piece, with the exception of the pawn, has a capitalized letter to represent it. The King is represented by a “K,” the Queen a “Q,” the Rook an “R,” the Bishop a “B,” and the Knight an “N.” The pawn has no associated symbol, so if you see a move such as “d4” it means a pawn is being moved to the square d4. At this point in the lesson, I’ll hand out a worksheet with the letters representing the pieces and a blank chessboard. I have the students practice what they’ve learned by filling in the name of the piece next to the appropriate letter and writing the name of various squares on the blank chessboard.

Then we move on to the action symbols used in algebraic notation. Action symbols represent an action taking place on the chessboard (children like the word action as do I). When a capture takes place, we use an “x” to indicate the capture. Therefore, Nxf6 tells us that a Knight has captured the pawn or piece on the f6 square. With pawns it’s a bit trickier. If we see dxe4, we know that it’s a pawn capture since pawns have no associated symbol to represent them. Castling King-side is denoted by the symbol O-O while Queen-side castling uses the symbol O-O-O. Check is denoted by a “+” symbol and checkmate is denoted by a “#” symbol. We can’t forget about keeping score of wins, losses and draws. If white wins, we write 1-0. If black wins we write 0-1. If the game is drawn, we write ½-½. I refrain from having my students learn any addition symbols, such as “!” or “!!” until they are fluent in the language’s rudimentary concepts. I also hold off on tackling positional situations in which two identical pieces, such as two white Knights, can occupy the same square. This is reserved for the next lesson, after my students understand the basics. The last thing I cover is how to write the moves down is proper order. This is easy enough. I have my students write the numbers 1 through 20 down the left margin of a sheet of lined paper. White’s first move is written next to the number one. Black’s first move is written to the right of white’s first move and so on. To reinforce this, I present a short demonstration game, writing each move on the chalkboard as the game is played.

I have always found the language of chess to be one of the most brilliant forms of linguistic communication because of its simplicity. While other languages take years to master, this simple language can be learned in a few hours. Furthermore, algebraic notation allows it’s user to study chess books, explore the games of past masters and record their own games.

We use modern notation in my classes. However, I have my advanced students learn older versions of chess notation since older chess books use more antiquated forms of notation. Of course, I have to convince them that they’re going on an intellectual adventure in order to get them to learn another dialect of the language of chess and that’s a story for another time. Here’s a game that incorporates everything we’ve talked about. There is one difference. This game uses cartoon-like symbols to represent the pieces (but not the pawns). Many chess books use this type of notation as well. Play through this game a few times and you’ll have learned an additional dialect of the language of chess!

Hugh Patterson

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About Hugh Patterson

Prior to teaching chess, Hugh Patterson was a professional guitarist for nearly three decades, playing in a number of well known San Francisco bands including KGB, The Offs, No Alternative, The Swinging Possums and The Watchmen. After recording a number of albums and CDs he retired from music to teach chess. He currently teaches ten chess classes a week through Academic Chess. He also created and runs a chess program for at-risk teenagers incarcerated in juvenile correctional facilities. In addition to writing a weekly column for The Chess Improver, Hugh also writes a weekly blog for the United States Chess League team, The Seattle Sluggers. He teaches chess privately as well, giving instruction to many well known musicians who are only now discovering the joys of chess. Hugh is an Correspondence Chess player with the ICCF (International Correspondence Chess Federation). He studied chemistry in college but has worked in fields ranging from Investment Banking and commodities trading to Plastics design and fabrication. However, Hugh prefers chess to all else (except Mrs. Patterson and his beloved dog and cat).