The Campbell Report
Correspondence Chess
"On the Square" Article

Wim van Vugt of the Netherlands has summarized a recent discussion on the CC Message Board (TCCMB) concerning the possibility of replacing International Numeric chess notation as the standard for ICCF play. I was impressed by his thorough research to remove the unfounded speculation on the disadvantages of the suggested Alpha-Numeric chess notation, and he kindly provided his summary in article form to post here. At my invitation he also provided some personal information and a photograph, which follows his article on this page. You'll also find a King's Gambit game, annotated by the winner. --- J. Franklin Campbell

Numeric or alphanumeric - The final verdict
Written by: Wim van Vugt, July 13th 2001

All arguments have been heard last week. Let me make a critical overview.

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 be ignored.

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 universality.

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 example):

Numeric: 1.7274,4745 2.6172,3874 3.3234,5756 4.4123,7866 5.2327,2847

Alphanumeric: 1.g2g4,d7d5 2.f1g2,c8g4 3.c2c4,e7e6 4.d1b3,g8f6 5.b3b7,b8d7

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 numerals.

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 time).

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 same.

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 "our" script.

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 life.

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 versa.

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 it?

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.

About myself:

I am 51 years old, married and have one daughter. She is 15 years. In regular life I am a teacher in Physical Chemistry at a Polytechnic

Wim van Vugt
Wim van Vugt

Institute in Utrecht. Utrecht is in the centre of the Netherlands, one of the oldest cities with a rich history and much architecture from Renaissance time and even before. It can be compared with Amsterdam but with no history of harbours and navigation. I live in Diemen, a small town at a distance of 20 minutes cycling from the centre of Amsterdam. Diemen is where I live and do my daily shopping, Amsterdam is where most of my friends live, where almost everything is one could wish and where I like to spend my lost hours just by walking around, do some shopping and drink a glass of good white wine on a shady terrace during warm and long summer evenings.

In Amsterdam is also my chess club De Raadsheer which I visit every week. Not only to play chess but also because of the responsibility I have as a tournament director. We have about 80 members, rated from roughly 1000-2000 ELO. We play an internal competition during 10 months and once a month in different teams against one of the 37 other Amsterdam chess clubs. In better times we as a chess club played in the national Dutch competition, but in these harder times we have been thrown back again into to the pool of destruction that is called Amsterdam.

I play correspondence chess since about 15 years, almost exclusively theme tournaments. A few weeks ago I found out that these tournaments are never used for rating, and so it happened that I could not find my own name back in the database of Eloquery and that I still do not have an ICCF rating. Looking at my reasonable results over the passed years and with the help of Eloquery itself, I calculated my own ICCF rating as being estimated around 2400-2450. But still I do not feel myself playing at master level, comparing myself all the time with the mistakes made in OTB chess. At best I may call myself an expert or class A player.

Sometimes I feel that I must be happy not to be an all too good chess player. Then I know that I will be too old to become a grandmaster ever in my life. This saves me from spending too much effort and time and brings me back onto earth realizing that there are many other nice or important things to do in life. Therefore I have a broad interest in different cultures, languages, history and their music. Alas, time is costly and I still do not know where I can buy that. So I still have to find a good equilibrium between my daily duties and chess playing and studying. But I never accept my wife's view when she says that it is "only a game". For me, chess will always be more than that.

King's Gambit killed

Erik de Baan - Wim van Vugt
Theme Tournament ICCF TT5/00, 2000
Notes by Wim van Vugt
1.e4,e5 2.f4,exf4 3.Nf3,h6!

In my opinion the best way to refute the "weak" 3.Nf3. A better try could be 3.Bc4, recommended by Fischer and Bronstein. In blitz games I even prefer 3.Nc3.
4.d4,g5 5.h4?!,Bg7 6.hxg5,hxg5 7.Rxh8,Bxh8 8.g3,d5! 9.Nc3,dxe4
Black is already better now.
Karol Pinkas tried 10.Qe2, but was quickly done away with 10…,Qe7 11.Nxe4,g4 11.Nfg5,f3 12.Qh2,Bxd4 13.Qh7,Nf6 15.Qh8+,Kd7 15.Bf4,f2+ 16.Ke2,b6 18.c4,Nc6 19.Rd1,Ba6 0-1
10…,g4 11.Bxf4!
On 11.Ne5, played by Jyrki Rahkonen in a friendly CC game in 1996, I decided to exchange into an ending by 11...,Bxe5 12.dxe5,Qxd1+ 13.Kxd1,fxg3 14.Bf4,Nc6 15.Nf6+,Nxf6 16.exf6,Bf5 17.Bxc7,Kd7 18.Bxg3,Ke6 with an easy win.
11…,gxf3 12.Qxf3,Nc6 13.0-0-0!,Bf5! 14.d5,Qe7 15.Ng5?
The only chance to save his life would have been 15.Nd6+,cxd6 16.dxc6,Qe4 17.Qxe4,Bxe4 18.cxb7,Bxb7 19.Bb5+,Kf8 20.Bxd6+,Kg7 21.Be5+,Nf6 22.Rd7,Bc8 23.Rd8,Bb7 24.Rd7 repeating moves.
15…,Nd4 16.Qf2, 0-0-0 17.c3,Bf6!
White is lost already. He only tries a schwindel now.
18.Nf3,Nxf3 19.Qxa7,Qe4 20.Bd3,Qxd3 21.Rxd3,Bxd3 22.Qe3,Rxd5 23.Qxf3,Rd7 24.g4,Bd8 25.Qe3,Ne7 26.Qa7,Nc6 27.Qa8+,Nb8
The last dream 28.Be3,Rd6! 29.Ba7 fails to 29…,Bg5+ 30.Kd1,Rf6 and white is mated.
28.Qa5,Bg6 29.Bg5,Bxg5 30.Qxg5,Nc6 0-1

Diagram a
After 11. Bxf4

Diagram b
After 17. ... Bf6

Diagram c
After 30. ... Nc6 0-1

Cartoon 199403
Then again, there's short algebraic

Home On the Square Menu Previous Article Next Article

Webmaster: J. Franklin Campbell
Contact Webmaster

Free counters provided by Andale.