The universal chess language of the "Informant" (Part 3)

by Diana Mihajlova
3/12/2021 – The first "Chess Informant" was published in 1966, and it caused a revolution in the world of chess. After looking at the history of the "Informant" in part 1 and the current situation of the "Informant" in part 2, the third and final part of this series deals with the universal chess language the "Informant" has created and has made popular: a system of signs that allows readers all over the world to understand the annotations of chess games and the system of codes classifying the various chess openings. Diana Mihajlova took a closer look.

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?  ??  !  !!  ?!  !?  +/-

A written language uses a set of symbols and punctuation marks as basic elements of orthography that make it possible to convey a thought. Punctuation is necessary to structure and organise words in a sentence and give it sense. Language is a science. Chess is a language. Therefore, chess is a science, would be Aristotle's logic. As such, it uses its own orthography of signs, symbols and formulae that helps to fathom its scientific nature, which was emphasized in Wilhelm Steinitz' words: "Chess is a scientific game and its literature ought to be placed on the basis of the strictest truthfulness, which is the foundation of all scientific research."

Instead of using a nomenclature for the chess pieces, which was the practice in earlier times, today, in annotated games they are presented with an image. This pictorial, "hieroglyphic" writing is further enhanced with specific, custom-made signs and symbols used to replace a verbal description and give more clarity to the sequence of moves in a "chess sentence". Most frequent are the punctuation marks borrowed from the "normal" language like ??;  ?; ?!; !?; !; !! to denote "blunder", "error", "dubious move", "interesting move", "best move", "brilliant move", etc.

Other symbols include: ⩲  Slight advantage for White;  ⩱  Slight advantage for Black;  ±  White stands better; ∓  Black stands better; +- White has a decisive advantage;  -+  Black has a decisive advantage;  =  Equal;  ∞ Uncertain position;  =/∞ Compensation; N novelty;  #  Checkmate; etc. These are part of a System of Chess Signs, simple and universally understandable to everyone, which helps to render a clearer meaning in the reader's mind.

But, have we ever asked ourselves, where do these symbols and signs come from? How have they "entered" the chess writing system? Who has invented them? It is habitual for us, humans, to take things for granted, without questioning or giving credit. However, nothing comes by on its own. Somebody has had to think of the need of facilitating the chess annotating language and create those symbols. The Informant!  The rich system of signs and marks that stress the "meaning" of a particular move in a chess sentence has been gifted to us by the Informant's creators. Could it be subject to "intellectual property"?  Would Informant's architects be entitled to claim "author's rights"? Perhaps. But, they have been going calmly their own way, providing the chess community with the beauty of a written language that has been widely applied, as a most natural occurrence, by all chess writers and publications.

The Informant's general manager, Vitomir Bozic, told me: "It has spontaneously become a 'global good'. To claim it back as our property, it would mean to deprive the world of its good. That would be senseless."

"The System of Signs", translated in ten languages, is spread over three pages at the beginning of each issue of the Informant. They can be seen here in a pdf.   

ECO B33 – the most often played opening?

According to the Informant, based on the number of annotated games that appeared until their 100th issue, the most often played opening was B33. Which opening is it? The code B33 stands for Lasker – Pelikan Sicilian, Sveshnikov variation.


A complete, correct title of a game would include the names of the opponents, the result, the tournament, date and place where the game was played and the Opening code. The various chess openings are classified in ECO coding system in which they are presented by a code composed of a letter, A-B-C-D and E and a number indicating a specific opening and its variant. The creators of this system are the same "culprits": the founders of the Chess Informant.  Among them, the greatest input in the idea and its realization had Rabar. (Rabar, a Croatian mathematician, had also established the basic foundations of rating and validation of chess results, however, FIDE had accepted the version of the American, Arpad Elo.)

The classification system was presented in a five-volume Encyclopaedia of Chess Openings, which is usually abbreviated as ECO.  The main editor was Aleksandar Matanović but in the compilation of the system a great number of notable chess players took part.

There are 500 codes (from A00 to E99). 

A generalized grouping of the chess openings would be the following:

Openings classified under ECO A: Irregular Openings, Nimzovich, Bird, Réti, English, Irregular Queen's Pawn, Modern, Old Benoni, Indian, Budapest, Old Indian, Benoni, Benko Gambit, Modern Benoni, and Dutch

Openings classified under ECO B: Irregular King's Pawn, Scandinavian, Alekhine, Robatsch, Pirc, Caro-Kann, and Sicilian

Openings classified under ECO C: French, King's Pawn, Center Game, Bishop's Opening, Vienna, Vienna Gambit, King's Gambit Declined, Falkbeer Counter-Gambit, King's Gambit Accepted, Irregular King's Knight, Philidor, Petrov, King's Knight, Ponziani, Scotch, Three Knights, Four Knights, Italian, Evans Gambit, Giuoco Piano, Two Knights, and Spanish

Openings classified under ECO D: Queen's Pawn, Queen's Gambit, Slav, Queen's Gambit Accepted, Queen's Gambit Declined, and Grünfeld

Openings classified under ECO E: Catalan, Irregular Indian, Bogo-Indian, Queen's Indian, Nimzo-Indian, and King's Indian

A sample of diagrams of C-Openings

And here is a pdf of a complete list of diagrams of the ECO coding system

Published in 1974-9 by Chess Informant, each of the five volumes covered one classification group, from A to E. It became known as ECO system and it is a standard classification used worldwide and endorsed by FIDE. The ECO coding system is a registered trademark of Chess Informant.


A former university lecturer in Romance philology, she is currently a painter as well as a chess journalist, and reports regularly from the international tournament scene.
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genem genem 3/15/2021 10:00
'?!' to me should mean - "This move looks bad at first glance, but on deeper analysis this move has positives that at least make the move fine overall". Informant just says "Dubious".

'?!' to me should mean - "This move looks good at first glance, but on deeper analysis this move has negatives that overall make this a problematic move". Informant just says "Interesting".

I cannot even type the Informant symbols for 'White Advantage' or 'Slight Black Advantage'. Better in today's world of Fritz on home computers and phones might be centipawns, such as "+.5" or "-.2"; which I can type.

The ECO codes had some value in the Informant books themselves, but not much value beyond that.

In today's era of huge databases of games and thus too of opening variations, ideally every combination of the first 10 moves (meaning first 5 move-pairs) would have its own FIDE-recognized guid (globally unique identifier). Maybe the format could be inspired by 32 hex digits, like 'b35a173a-98f2-4184-95f7-ba2514f6782a'. Well, a more engineered version of this basic concept would be better.
The crucial value is the ability to easily Search ebooks and the web for chess games that used the exact opening variation that you are interested in.
geeker geeker 3/13/2021 03:59
The ECO opening code seems to have gone out of fashion. For many years, game scores always included the ECO code in the header, but I rarely see that any more.