Numeric or alphanumeric - The final
Written by: Wim van Vugt, July 13th 2001
All arguments have been heard last week. Let me make a
Numeric is said to have an advantage over the
alphanumeric system for the notation of moves because all people know the
numerals 1,2,3 but are not always so acquainted with a,b,c alphabet. So some
people are strongly attracted to the present annotation system for CC. First
the FROM-square is denoted and subsequently the TO-square. No symbols for
pieces are used; if so, any extra indication other than the FROM/TO-squares can
The same FROM/TO-convention is used in almost every
corner of science, e.g. thermodynamics. When heat and work are done from
situation 1 (begin) to situation 2 (end), these quantities are usually denoted
respectively by Q12 and W12.
The discussion is centered on what is the best way of
denoting the 64 squares of the chess board. One group thinks that the best way
of doing so is: give all squares a unique number for the file and the row. The
files and rows are both numbered from 1-8. The squares then take on the
appearance of cells in a matrix. This is the numeric system.
The other group found that there should be a difference
in naming for files and rows, respectively a-h and 1-8. This system got the
name alphanumeric during these discussions. Theoretically, these two systems do
exactly the same job.
Then came the pros and cons. To muddy the discussion some
PGN adherents tried to score their point. This method of representing moves is
very handy for software users but clumsy for people who are not acquainted to
or even do not like English at all. If one is looking for a simple, universal
and unambiguous form of notation that can be used in postal CC and email CC as
well (and in OTB chess, too), PGN does not fulfil the standard of
To make the discussion less clear some brought in several
ancient descriptive notation systems (English, Spanish). Of course, this was
wasted energy insofar as these systems are not simple, not universal and by
their very nature language-linked.
The only two surviving models then were numeric and
alphanumeric. To get a quick impression how these systems work, I give the
opening moves of Grob's Attack (this is not my favourite opening but just an
Numeric: 1.7274,4745 2.6172,3874 3.3234,5756
Alphanumeric: 1.g2g4,d7d5 2.f1g2,c8g4 3.c2c4,e7e6
All indications of pieces can be left out. Inclusion of
piece description does not alter the move, even if it is the wrong piece (one
can play with camels, snakes and whales, if one likes): the FROM and TO
indications are the only valid ones. Additional indicators such as check, +, x,
ep or whatever else comes to mind are superfluous as well. Castling is
considered a king move: 5171 or e1g1, 5131 or e1c1 for white, and 5878 or e8g8,
5838 or e8c8 for black.
It is easy to see that numeric notation closely resembles
a machine code whereas the alphanumeric representation looks more
user-friendly. Theoretically, there is no difference in these two methods
except that files are named a-h and lines 1-8 in the alphanumeric. Despite the
fact that there are many practical advantages of alphanumeric, opposition
concentrated on the argument that many people do not know the Western alphabet
a,b,c but do use the number system 1,2,3 as a way of representing
If this were true, the numeric system would be more
universal than the alphanumeric. This is exactly what I researched during the
last four days (some researches can be done quick and thoroughly at the same
It was asserted that Indian and Chinese people do not use
the European alphabet but do use the (Arabian) numerals 1,2,3. Of course, one
may check out many other cultures to see if such arguments are applicable for
them as well. Also, the suggestion was made that the Finnish language had no B
at all in their language. This was easily refuted by mailing a Finnish friend
of mine. The question that remained then was: are there any peoples or cultures
who use their own writing system without knowledge of our a,b,c and at the same
time use 1,2,3 as symbols for numbers?
Possible candidates are: Russia, China, India, Iran and
Arabian speaking countries.
Russia: Here the Cyrillic script is in use in combination
with our western 1,2,3 numerals. Looking at Russian chess literature, where
Russian names for the pieces are used in combination with the Cyrillic script,
one sees at a glance that our alphabet is used to indicate the files. So 1,2,3
for rows is used in combination with a,b,c for files.
China: I went to the nearest Chinese restaurant, ordered
three portions of something to take home and asked to see the paper which was
handed to the kitchen when they prepared my order. They wrote the meal in
Chinese script and 3 not with our symbol 3 but with their own symbol. Next I
found an internet-site for translation and dictionaries:
I typed in the numbers 1-10 to see what happened. For
each number they have a separate symbol. Very ancient ones are used, at least
2000 years old as I found out from a science-history book shortly thereafter.
The same situation exists for Korea and Japan.
India: Although I have been there several times and knew
for certain that the real inhabitants use their own language and numerals
(besides the fact that many of them speak English), I communicated by email
with a resident to find out what Indians write if they are not influenced by
their knowledge of foreign language. It was checked for me whether or not the
people in the street use their own symbols for their language: Hindi, Malayalam
or any other languages that exist. And as is very typical: they invariably have
their own symbols for their numericals although the Western symbols 1,2,3 are
widely understood due to the influence of English.
Then I looked in my house for some Persian coins, on
which I found that no a,b,c nor 1,2,3 were to be found anywhere, only what for
me were unreadable symbols. The same applies to my Moroccan and Nepalese coins.
A quick look at several LP's and CD's from those countries told me the
All those people use the Western 1,2,3 if and only if
they also use a West-European language as a cultural internal connection. In
India it is English; in Morocco it is French. Both countries have a
"rich" history of colonialism. China and Japan are separate cases:
they still use their own symbols. Only western oriented people use
The modern European numerals are called
"Arabian" only because they came down to Europe during the Middle
Ages by translation of the Arabian works of Al-Kwarizmi, who had taken the
numericals including the decimal system from Hindi mathematicians. At present
even the Arabs don't use the "Arabian" numerals in their normal daily
This brings me to the well-founded conclusion that 1,2,3
is as (un)usual as a,b,c. If one knows the first, one knows the other and vice
The numeric system is known to generate unintentional
clerical errors from time to time. Many CC players have had that bad
experience. To convert it into more user-friendly way of notation, software
(like Ectool) is available, which can only help a few and causes new problems
for many others. The time of pen and paper has come to an end forever. Although
the numeric system boasts of being unambiguous, some CC players have taken
resort to double notation: both numeric and algebraic, PGN or another version.
This introduces a new problem of ambiguity, causing the numeric system to be
its own paradox!
[New Paragraph added on 15-July-2001]
Some people have told me that in handwritten script a and d could
easily be mixed up and that the difference between c and e was often hard to
discern. Those people didn't mention to me that only a few people's handwriting
is so bad that it really could become a problem. They fail to note how often
the numerals 1 and 7 are indistinguishable, left alone my concerns about
telling 2, 3 and 5 apart in some really bad handwriting.
It is evident that alphanumeric is clearly superior to
the numeric system in the areas of ease of use and simplicity. Only a few would
feel inclined to use double notation. Many cheap chess boards have these
abc/123-indications around the edges and it is closely associated to present
international chess literature. But, most importantly, it promotes thinking in
terms of files and rows! As every respected chess player has always known:
files and rows are not equivalent or exchangeable. This is because the chess
board has the property of anisotropy: different properties in different
directions. The same phenomenon as found in graphite and liquid crystals, or if
one likes to stay nearer at home, in wood.
There can be two reasons against changing the rules and
preserving the official status of numeric over all others: inertia and
unwillingness. Even if it is possible that a better idea should replace an old
one, some don't like to be troubled by such a problem. If it worked well for so
many years, why shouldn't it work any longer? If it isn't broken, why fix
The second reason is even more obstructive. Since some
propose another alternative (than alphanumeric) to the existing numeric, they
don't want a better system to replace the old one simply because this would
diminish their own chances. So, let the old rotten system stay unimpaired to
make my own proposal look better!
And so it seems that once an error has been made, it is
quite difficult to correct, even if one knows the solution.