The majority of chess players go into a tournament game without any sort of prior preparation. However, when there is adequate time to do so, preparation can be very effective in improving your results. This is especially applicable in round robin tournaments where your opponents are known well in advance.
Before the preparation progress begins, the dedicated player will need a range of tools at his disposal:
A desktop computer, or a laptop if you intend on travelling a lot.
Chess database software such as ChessBase, Aquarium or SCID. (SCID is free and the other two are commercial.)
A decent database.
A reasonable database can be hard to maintain depending on your geographical location. If you live in a place where chess is wildly popular, it would be good to purchase ChessBase’s Mega Database or Big Database. If you are strapped for cash, a powerful option is the Million Base 1.74, a free 192 MB download. You can update the database from week to week with Mark Crowther’s free The Week in Chess.
If you do not live in such a place, you may have to trawl around websites to find local games. For example, in Australia I would look around the Australian Chess Federation website and throughout Chess Chat and OzChess, the main online chat rooms.
When you have the name of your opponent and what colour you are to be playing, you can do two main types of preparation – psychological and opening preparation. Firstly, play through the games you have and try to note your opponent’s style and his weaknesses. For example, many attacking players self-destruct when they are relegated to boring strategic positions. Other attacking players hate to be attacked themselves and are awkward defenders.
Secondly, you should look through what openings your opponent plays. Once you are well versed in your opponent’s repertoire, you have two main approaches. The first is that you can play your normal opening repertoire and prepare the lines that your opponent plays into. For example, if you play the Pirc Defence against 1.e4 and your opponent is a dedicated 1.e4 player, then you can happily
prepare the Pirc Defence and you do not have to worry about your defences against 1.d4, 1.c4, 1.Nf3 etc. This philosophy is the safest approach, although you run the risk of your opponent having prepared something special for you as well. In preparing, you should look up your source of theory, whether it be a specialist opening book, a generic book like Nunn’s Chess Openings or something you have cooked up yourself on the computer.
The second approach is to target the openings that your opponent plays. For example, say your opponent almost always plays an inferior variation of the King’s Gambit after 1.e4 e5 2.f4 exf4 3.Qf3?! You could memorise the refutation for this variation (you might find the refutation in a specialist or generic opening book) and respond against 1.e4 with 1…e5 even though you are not typically a 1…e5 player. This approach is a highly aggressive one and inherently carries more risk. The ideal situation is that your opponent plays into the refuted line and you win by solely relying on memory. The worst case scenario is that after 1.e4 e5, your opponent might catch on to the fact that this is not what you normally play. He might play his backup variation 2.Bc4 which he has some knowledge of but has never played in the database before. This would leave you in a very awkward situation where you have no idea what your doing and your opponent’s superior knowledge could easily give him the edge.
Which approach should you take? As with many things in life, it really depends on the situation. Some players love their openings to death and would never deviate even if they knew that you prepared for the game. Others would not hesitate to deviate after 5 seconds of thinking. It is your judgement call – one approach is safe, but sometimes so safe as to be predictable; the other approach is risky, but sometimes so risky that your bluff is called.
What to do if there are no games of your opponent on the database
There is not much that you can do in this situation. Double check if your opponent is in the database under a slightly different name. If there is still no success, you can do some modest preparation on your normal openings or you can check the database for any of your games that you think your opponent might use to prepare against you. The latter will give you the chance to plug up some of the holes in your repertoire.