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Elsewhere on this site, John Knudsen recommends not using computer programs to keep game records. Most email players, however, do use such programs. One popular program is ECTool.
ECTool will send and receive email through a POP/SMTP mail server and automatically updates your game database when new moves arrive. ECTool also maintains time controls for rated games. The Tournament Wizard makes setting up a multiple-player match or tournament simple.
ECTool is available for download from http://webs.ono.com/a.valverde/ectool.htm. ECTool is no longer in development and the full version is free to download and use.
Here is an excerpt from the IECC Guidelines:
8.1 Players are free to consult chess publications or literature in printed or electronic form. Any other form of consultation, including the use of computer chess programmes that analyse a position and suggest moves or play chess games, is prohibited
Now, what can you do before the game? Here's a tip from Stan Vaughn, a well-known correspondence chess player:
As for opening selection, don't take opening variations in opening manuals for granted. Go to the end of the line, set up a position, check it out on a computer first, make notes on all the lines and try choosing the lines you feel give you the best positions upon reaching a middlegame.
Find lines that are deceptive, which if you survive will give you, for example, a queenside pawn majority. Many players use computers to their detriment because the computer does not see that in an endgame 50 moves down the line a pawn majority may give you a winning advantage not calculated by the computer.
Stan's advice has been very helpful to me. I find that beginning players very quickly make "out-of-book" moves, so knowing a line isn't always so helpful when you're starting out. If you can turn off the opening book feature in your chess program, you can play your standard opening a few times and get used to playing it against unexpected replies. Der Bringer (see link on "Chess Programs" page) makes this very easy to do. "Experience pays."
Game databases are like museums. They tell you what was popular in the past. Chess is dynamic, and correspondence chess is the R&D laboratory of chess.
If you're just starting out, though, you probably don't need to know the latest lines in openings, or the latest theories on certain positions. Modern Chess Openings, by Nick deFirmian, will guide you through the openings well enough.
Coupled with a large-enough database, a database program will help you see the most-popular lines in an opening.
I use the free CDB chess database program (see link on "Chess Programs" page), but Chessbase Light is also very helpful. See my "Links" page for download sites.
In addition to one, huge, database, I have separate databases of games that used openings I prefer.
If you're going to play in a rated game with IECC or IECG, see my page "Preparing for Rated Email Matches and Tournaments" for some suggestions on using a database to check out your opponents.