I. Opponents’ profiles. A standard dossier featuring one of your opponents should reflect his opening repertoire, as well as weaknesses and strengths. This information might prove extremely useful both during preparation for the game and over-the-board. Creating a dossier makes sense when you are taking part in a match, round robin (with all the players known in advance) or have to confront a certain opponent frequently. Of course, as time goes by, the dossier should be updated properly.
a) Reviewing the opening repertoire
Make sure you have ChessBase, Chess Assistant, or any other decent databases (Chess.com's shop should have them all in store) that can build a tree of games played by a person. First of all, you have to take a look at all the openings that your opponent has employed throughout his chess career. Even if he didn’t play something for years, there is still a chance of a comeback. Also, it offers information on what types of structures he is familiar and comfortable with. Secondly, pay more attention to recent games, e.g. played within the last two years. This will help you understand what his current opening repertoire is. By analyzing the scores in each opening and the performances, you may come to a conclusion on which systems he knows best and worst.
b) Pinpointing strengths and weaknesses
Depending on how many tournaments a year your opponent plays, you can either take a look only at the last 1-2 years (for relatively active players), or review more games (for people who compete rarely, or on whom there isn’t much information available). When going through games, pay special attention to such factors as: style, preferences in types of positions, recurring mistakes, the way he defends or attacks, tactical prowess, reaction towards unexpected positional transformations, love or hatred for endgames, etc. The more features you know, the easier it is to find your opponent’s Achilles’ heel.
c) Personal observations and other info
By watching your opponent play, you can gain much more useful information. For example, time management (does he often get into time trouble?; does he spend a lot of time in the opening, and in what cases?; how does he handle opening surprises?). If your opponent is famous enough, you may also scan the relevant media (articles, interviews, games’ reviews) to find out more.
II. Your own profile – the real one as well as the public image. Of course, before creating dossiers on your opponents, one should form the correct picture about oneself. To make the evaluation fair and unbiased, you may want to ask your coach or friend to characterize you as a chess player. By enriching the dossier with some personal observations, you will reveal your weaknesses and strengths. This will help you both maximize your results in the short run and create a long-term training program aimed at eliminating the cons of your profile. Also, by asking your chess friends or studying the media, you will learn what your public image is. True masters are skillful in terms of taking advantage of the existing stereotypes about themselves.
Mikhail Botvinnik, one of the pioneers of the dossier-creation method, was persistent in mentioning in the media that he suffered from tactical blindness. There is a widespread belief that his goal was to convince his young and ambitious opponents to attack him at all costs. Meanwhile, more experienced colleagues of the legendary world champion pointed out wisely that Botvinnik has won many great tactical games, so his alleged “tactical blindness” was just a decoy!
The magician from Riga, Mikhail Tal, is still regarded to be one of the best tactical players ever. His contemporaries often thought that he could instantly and impeccably calculate all the variations, so there was no sense in trying to refute his combinations. On the contrary, Korchnoi and Polugaevsky didn’t fall under his charms and always used to perform a thorough check of all the options. Quite often Tal’s brilliancies turned out to be flawed…
The “dark horse” phenomenon (when a rating outsider, who enters a super tournament for the first time in his life and fares successfully), is often connected with exploiting the image of “a lower-class player.” Even experienced top grandmasters sometimes fall for this trap and start taking risks against the “weak link” in order to secure the whole point. As a result, all the “dark horse” has to do is collect easy draws and wins.
III. Taking advantage of the dossiers. By comparing one’s own dossier with the opponent’s profile, an experienced player makes a decision on how to play. For example, in the book “How life imitates chess”, Garry Kasparov mentions that during the WC match against Nigel Short, a bright tactician, he decided to play more positionally. That is, Garry chose the type of positions he didn’t like that much, but Short simply couldn’t stand them! In other words, it was easier for Garry to outclass Short in a strategic fashion than beat him in a tactical struggle (which they both adore). On the contrary, against Karpov, one of the greatest positional players of all time, Garry tried to create dynamics positions that demand acute calculational skills and tactical prowess from both opponents. Kramnik, who won his match against Kasparov without losing a single game, has taken advantage of a few vulnerable spots of the chess legend: unlimited belief in his superiority in any type of positions; dynamic attacking style; stubbornness. By forcing Garry to play endgames with a minor advantage over and over again, he mitigated his exceptional calculational skills and made him fight on Vladimir’s home turf. As can be seen from the results of the match, the colossus fell due to the excellent strategy employed by Kramnik and his team.
Chess is especially attractive due to its complexity. No matter how good you are at creating dossiers and playing the game, success is never granted. The trick is that your mighty opponents are also on the look-out. They are aware of both their strengths and their weaknesses, and doing their best to come up with a strategy that will help them prevail. Modern top-level chess is not only about otb struggles, but about invisible duels of opponents’ teams. The strongest player doesn’t always win; a lot depends on the preparation against each particular opponent.
As a traditional follow-up, here is the annotation to a recent game of mine vs GM Monika Socko at the European Club Cup:
After getting a large advantage in the endgame, I started playing unconfidently and ended up in serious time trouble. My advantage kept shrinking and at some point had finally evaporated completely. As a result, I had to switch to a defensive mode and secure a draw.