The PGN Page

What is PGN?

Over the past few decades, a number of fine chess programs have been written to both play the game of chess and display chess games. As new programs are developed, so are new formats for representing chess games. As a result, the world is full of a number of different (and incompatible) chess game formats: Chessbase, Bookup, NIC Base, Chess Assistant, and the list goes on.

PGN is an attempt to unify the wide field of chess software. What is required is a method to port games from one program (or computer system) to another. Indeed, PGN stands for Portable Game Notation. Although a very simple system for recording chess games, its universal acceptance on the internet guarantees that it will be used for many years to come.

Planet Chess now offers PGN game files with its regular features. To fully take advantage of this, you need to acquire what’s called a PGN Reader. This is a program which can take a PGN file and display the game, usually on a graphical board that the user controls.

We looked at several PGN Readers available for the PC and Macintosh and reviewed them below. We judge each program on many factors: its reliability, how good it looks, how easy it is to use, and the quality of its features.

Installing PGN reading software is easy if you’re familiar with downloading and installing software. We provide some installation tips to help you on your way.

Be sure that your computer system matches the Platform described under the program. For example, you cannot use a program for Windows 95 if you run Unix, and you cannot use a program forMacintosh Finder 7.x if you run Windows.

If you like to read the nuts-and-bolts details behind PGN, we suggest you read The PGN Standard written by its creator, Steven J. Edwards

pgnRead 1Written by: Keith Fuller (
Platform: Microsoft Windows (3.x or 95)
Cost: Freeware. Enjoy!
File size: 80K

There’s nothing fancy about pgnRead. You can’t enter your own moves, you can’t change the board color or the pieces, and you can’t make the system “auto-play” a game for hands-free chess viewing. However, it reliably does its job, it’s small, it’s easy to use, it’s free, and we recommend it for anybody who wants to peruse PGN.

The documentation also contains the following valuable installation tips. The first tip will allow you to view a PGN file by double clicking on its icon from within Windows 95. The second tip will allow Netscape to automatically launch the program when it encounters a PGN file–as with Planet Chess.

To use pgnRead with the File Manager: Start the File Manager, click on any PGN file, and select Associate from the File menu. Press the Browse button in the Associate dialog, and browse until you find the pgnRead program (pgn151rd.exe), or just type its complete file name into the box. Press OK. Now double-clicking on any PGN file in the File Manager will bring up pgnRead looking at that file.To use pgnRead with Netscape: Start Netscape and choose Preferences from the Options menu. Select Helper Applications in the list box at the top of the dialog. Click the New button, and enter Mime type applicationand Mime subtype x-chess-pgn. Type PGN in the Extensions box. In the Action box, click Launch Application. Press the Browse button, and browse until you find the pgnRead program (pgn140rd.exe), or just type its complete file name into the box. Press OK.”

To install the program, download the file and unzip it in a directory of its own. You will need PKunzip, WinZip, or some other utility that can unzip files. The file to execute is called pgn151rd.exe.

Written by: Tim Mann
Platform: Windows 95, Windows NT
Cost: Freeware
File size: 1391K

This is a popular program with a very good reputation.

From the file READ_ME.TXT which is included with the package:

WinBoard is a graphical chessboard for Windows 95 or NT that can serve as a user interface for GNU Chess, for the Internet Chess Server (ICS), or for electronic mail correspondence chess. WinBoard can also be used by itself: it can read and write game files in PGN (portable game notation).

To install the program, download the file, unzip it, and run the setup.exe it creates. You will need PKunzip, WinZip, or some other utility that can unzip files.

Written by: Don Fong
Platform: Windows 3.x, Windows 95
Cost: Donation of $12+ appreciated (shareware)
File size: 478K

There’s a little confusion over the name of this product. A long time back, the program was called CHESSBD, and it was strictly a PGN reader. Now that the chess server functions have been added, it’s called SLICS. To make matters more confusing, the documentation still refers to the product as CHESSBD.

No matter what you call it, it’s a fine PGN reader and a chess server interface rolled into one. Some of its features include:

  • You can make your own moves as you view the games if you want to do some analysis. The option “Var board” (variation board) will produce a smaller board to the side of the main one, where you can move pieces and explore alternate lines. When you want to return to the main game, simply close the variation board and continue where you left off.
  • You can set-up positions. This is ideal for studying endings, chess problems, etc.
  • If you use this program on a chess server, your games get automatically saved to a file called icsgames.pgn.
  • The pieces are best described as “minimalist,” and you might not like them. Fortunately, there are other options available–read the documentation for more information. When you register the program, you will be given a beautiful bitmapped piece set which is even better than the ones provided.
  • More than just a PGN reader, it can read English descriptive notation (e.g., 1. N-KB3), as well as “dirty” input with interspersed commentary and variations. In short, if it looks like a chess game, this program can probably display it!
  • You can interface this program with Netscape by following the same procedure given for pgnRead, above.

Installation: The file is a “self-extracting executable.” That means you first make a new directory (call it SLICS), put the file in the directory, and then execute the file by name, which is slics23c.exe. The program will extract itself. In Windows, you will want to make a shortcut (to use Windows-95 terminology) to the program.

In short, this is a great all-in-one package which is freely available on the internet. It kills two birds with one stone: viewing PGN games and playing chess on the chess servers. If you end up using, we suggest sending Mr. Fong a small token of your appreciation, so that we can expect more releases in the future.

Written by: Anders Kierulf, R & D Publishing
Platform: Macintosh
Cost: $99 (shareware)
File size: 550K

Mac users don’t have the wide variety of choices that PC users do. Fortunately the one popular PGN reader for the Macintosh is a creampuff.

Smart Game Board (also known as Smart Chess Reader) is a program that reads PGN files, ChessBase files, and a number of other popular formats. It displays the games in an animated black-and-white diagram, plain but professional.

If you’re looking for power, this program is chock full o’ features. For starters, you can use this program as an interface to chess servers in case you don’t have any of the other Mac interfaces. It has some nice desktop publishing features, if you are interested in printing magazine quality chess analysis. You also can create your own game, or add annotation to an existing game, and thereby create your own database of games. However, until you register the shareware version, you cannot save your files. This is the only inconvenience of the shareware version.

It’s not entirely a bed of roses, however. When it comes to processing PGN files, the program is very slow. Before you actually get to see a game, you see a screen that says, for example, “chars to go: 12072” You are forced to watch the bytes trickle slowly down to zero before the games begin.

Another drawback is the auto-play feature. The problem is that it goes at such a rapid pace (on Power Macs) that it would only appeal to a true blitz-chess freak. As far as I can tell, there is no place to set a slower preference.

All things considered, this is one program that a Macintosh chess enthusiast cannot afford to be without. Mr. Kierulf did a fine job here and deserves your support.

Perhaps you already own ChessBase or NICbase, or one of the other chess database products on the market. Do you have to abandon your entire game collection to start collecting PGN files? Thank goodness, no! There are several handy conversion programs which make your job easier.

Installation: To use these programs, download the software and put it in an appropriate directory. Then execute it by typing the file name, and it will display the full instructions.

  • nic2pgn.exe – Converts NICbase files into PGN.
  • pgn2nic.exe – Converts PGN files into NICbase.
  • cb2pgn.exe – Converts ChessBase files into PGN.
  • pgn2cb.exe – Converts PGN files into ChessBase.
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