The description of protein structure in the language of side chain contact maps is shown to offer many advantages over more traditional approaches. Because it focuses on side chain interactions, it aids in the discovery, study and classification of similarities between interactions defining particular protein folds and offers new insights into the rules of protein structure. For example, there is a small number of characteristic patterns of interactions between protein supersecondary structural fragments, which can be seen in various non-related proteins. Furthermore, the overlap of the side chain contact maps of two proteins provides a new measure of protein structure similarity. As shown in several examples, alignments based on contact map overlaps are a powerful alternative to other structure-based alignments.