!?

It’s said there are more books about chess than all other games combined.

To non-players, a chess book is an arcane mystery of jumbled letters and references to openings with such exotic names as the Nimzo-Indian Defence, the Nescafé Frappé Attack, and the Sicilian Najdorf Poisoned Pawn Variation.

But notation is deceptively simple. Each move simply lists the moving piece and the co-ordinates of its destination. Be4 is a bishop move to a central square. Rxa8 tells us the rook is capturing whatever’s in the top-left corner.

(I’m talking here about algebraic notation.  – the Pawn-to-Queen’s-Bishop-3 stuff of old movies – is deprecated as complex and ambiguous.)

So far, so functional. However, chess notation also provides means of passing judgment on the moves. Expert annotators earn their living by peppering games with punctational shorthand:

  • ! – good move
  • !! – excellent move
  • ? – bad move
  • ?? – terrible move

These symbols can be combined. ?! denotes a dubious, but not awful, move. !? is used to mark an novel idea that looks promising but may prove to be unsound.

It’s the !? moves that I’m most interested in.