16 March 2012

Algebraic Notation: The Language of Chess

Studying the Endgame in Three Languages

Endgame article by Jan Drtina
International publications use figurine algebraic notation so that chess enthusiasts can play through the games no matter what language they read and speak. Figures identify the pieces, while the letters and numbers describe their movement. But even publications that employ letters instead of figures can be translated readily without much difficulty.

The king's name starts with the letter K in several European languages, and the letter R in others. The English rook (R) is often a castle or tower in other languages (der Turm in German = T). The Queen is a dame in many languages (German: die Dame). The knight leaps, and so in German is der Springer and represented by the letter S. In German, the bishop is a runner (der Laufer), but in French is a fool (Fou), while in Russian it remains true to the game's ancient origins and is an elephant (Slon).

My German is weak, and my abilities in such languages as Russian and Czech are nonexistent. Nevertheless, I can read the chess notation in the endgame article "Theorie pĕšee proti králi" from Časopis českých šachistů (1907). The words are beyond my skill set aside from a handful of essential cognates: I can make out the terms opposition, diagonal opposition, vertical opposition, and critical square in the article.

In this article, Jan Drtina (1834-1907) examines both opposition and critical squares with reference to four diagrams. The article was published posthumously--an obituary for Drtina appears several pages earlier. I shall give what I am able to decipher concerning the second position.

White to move

1.Kd2 seizes the opposition, but Black replies 1...Ke7. Then, 2.Kd3 Kd7! and now Black has the opposition. White's pawn will not promote.

Drtina then gives the line 1.Kc2! Ke7! 2.Kb3! Kd6 3.Kb4! Kc6 4.Kc4! Kc7 5.Kd5 Kd7 6.c4 (here he has a reference to the previous position's analysis) 6...Kc7 7.Kc5! Kd8 8.Kd6 Kc8! (here he says something about a critical square) 9.c6 Kc8! 11.c7.

Drtina goes on to discuss the work of Johann Berger, Theorie und Praxis der Endspiele (1890). My sense from the text is that he takes issue with Berger's discussion of the opposition, but I must bone up on my German and spend some time perusing Berger's text as a preliminary step to struggling with the Czech in Drtina's article.

Of this much I am certain. In the position below, White has two moves that seize the opposition.

White to move

1.Kb6 seizes the vertical opposition and leads to a draw.
1.Kd6! seizes the diagonal opposition and wins in a manner much akin to the end of the Drtina's line from the previous diagram.

Google translate helps:
"Tady to sice neni oposice (Here it is not opposition) ... 1.Ke6 neb i odtud dosahne kritickeho pole d7 a tu je jeste jedna take-take-oposice (1.Ke6 because thence to a critical field d7 and there is still a take-take-opposition)."
"Theorie pĕšee proti králi," 137.
Taking the opposition is insufficient to win, one must seize a critical square. There is some indication in a few things that I have read that the theory of critical squares was developed by Jan Drtina independently of Abbé Philippe Ambroise Durand, Stratégie Raisonnée Des Fins de Partie Du Jeu D'Échecs (1871)--half a century earlier (see discussion at chessgames.com by Gypsy). Such work adds fundamentally to Berger's discussion of the opposition.

In "Opposition and Outflanking," I quoted Jeremy Silman: "the opposition is only a means to an end, not the end itself."


  1. I'm afraid 1.Kb6 is also winning in the last diagram since after 1...Ka8 the White King can reply 2.Kc7 (not 2.c7? stalemate) then occupying one of the 6 key squares of the passed pawn c6 that are b7-c7-d7-b8-c8-d8, which consequently secures the promotion.
    So both 1.Kd6 and 1.Kb6 are correct here.

    Remember the most convenient "2 out of 3" rule :
    The White passed pawn promotes if the White King fulfills at least 2 of the 3 following conditions :
    1- the White King goes ahead of his Pawn
    2- the White has reached the 6th rank
    3- the White King seizes the Opposition

    In the previous example, by playing 1.Kb6, the White King achieves conditions 2 and 3 and the White promotes

    1. You are correct, kloch. Thanks for noting my oversight. The principle that Drtina sought to articulate contra Berger's discussion of opposition needs a better illustration.

      Of course, chess players have a better understanding of these principles today.