From Bobby Fischer To Hikaru Nakamura: How have chess opening choices changed at the candidates tournament?

In any chess game, how you handle the opening clearly dictates the tone of the battle. When top-level chess players compete against each other, this fundamental concept is of paramount importance. FIDE Candidates is such a tournament where the world's elite compete for a shot at becoming the next world chess champion. The aim of this article is to compare the types of openings used during the 1971 FIDE candidate cycle, when legendary Bobby Fischer squared off with the leading players of his era, against the recently concluded FIDE candidate cycle in 2022, where modern day legend Hikaru Nakamura faced off with elite players of his generation. We will investigate 1) what openings were popular back then, 2) what openings are popular now, and 3) how the opening spread has changed between the above two candidates tournaments of different eras. 

It is worth noting that tournament formats were completely different. That is in 1971 FIDE candidate cycle employed a knockout format while in 2022 it was in the format of a double-round robin. Despite the tournament format affecting the opening choice somewhat, chess opening is typically chosen in order to increase the player's chances of winning against the opponent.

Let us quickly introduce the players who took part in the 1971 candidates. They are Tigran Petrosian, Viktor Korchnoi, Bent Larsen, Robert Huebner, Wolfgang Uhlmann, Efim Geller, Mark Taimanov and Robert Fischer. Fischer went on to win the tournament with a crunching score of 6.5 points against Petrosian who managed to score only 2.5 points.

The chart below shows that 12 different openings have been used, with English (t-shirt) opening and Sicilian (t-shirt) defence being the most popular. The Caro-Kann, Petrov, and Nimzo Indian defences were the least favourite openings, each played only once.

Grandmasters such as Ding Liren, Teimour Radjabov, Hikaru Nakamura, Fabiano Caruana, Alireza Firouzja, Jan-Krzysztof Duda, Richárd Rapport and Ian Nepomniachtchi competed as candidates this year in the hopes of challenging Magnus Carlsen.  GM Ian Nepomniachtchi snatched that opportunity with both hands by winning this year’s candidates tournament with a score of 9.5 points. However, due to Magnus Carlsen's withdrawal from the world title match, GM Ding Liren qualified to fill Magnus' place since he finished second in this year's candidates.

With 13 different chess openings employed in this candidates cycle, Ruy Lopez is the top choice of white, and Sicilian is the top choice of black. A few players tried playing openings such as Four Knights game, King's Indian Attack (KIA) and Semi-slave only once as illustrated in the chart above.

There is little comparison between the number of different openings that players in different eras have used. Both candidate tournaments have about 12 different openings. However, the once popular King's Indian Defense (KID) and French Defense have completely disappeared from the 2022 candidates tournament, while Ruy Lopez and Catalan have become very popular. With the significant advancement of chess engines, players can now evaluate every opening to insane depths. Such evaluations have revealed that certain openings have a low winning chance even with a perfect play, such as King's Indian Defense.

On the other hand, Sicilian defence has remained popular and has survived the test of time. As such, English openings and Queen's Gambit Declined (QGD) have remained popular for many years as well.

In conclusion, regardless of who is playing chess, Bobby Fischer or Hikaru Nakamura, the goal of their opening choice has always been to gain an advantage in the opening. The number of openings chosen by the candidates has not changed between 1971 and 2022 candidates. Certain openings, however, have gone out of style, while others, such as Ruy Lopez and Catalan, have become extremely popular. Some of the top openings that have stood the test of time include the Sicilian defence, the English opening, and the Queen's Gambit Declined.

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