The Cornish Spiderman

The softly spoken Cornishman Michael Adams weaves webs around his opponents and strikes when it is too late for his encircled

Chess

Although Standpoint has a global rather than a parochial outlook, it is still remiss of me not to have mentioned Britain’s strongest chess player in the more than five years of this column’s existence. It is no excuse at all, but perhaps one reason is that Michael Adams is so consistent — in the world’s top 20 for the past two decades — that he has become almost the chess equivalent of a very fine motor car. The engine is so smooth and reliable that we hardly notice it running at all.

Last month, however, the Adams mental motor suddenly developed turbochargers: he won the immensely strong annual Dortmund Sparkassen tournament ahead of the world’s third- and fourth-ranked grandmasters — the Russian former world champion Vladimir Kramnik and the Italian-American Fabiano Caruana. At the age of 41, this was probably Adams’s greatest tournament result; although those with long memories will recall his clear first place in the Dos Hermanas tournament of 1999 ahead of Kramnik, Anand and Karpov. 

At that time Adams had become the world’s fourth-ranked player and there were hopes that he might follow Nigel Short and become the second Englishman to mount a serious assault on the world championship itself. Yet in his own time Kramnik and Anand have been a bit too good — just as Short in his peak years had no answer to the supremacy of Garry Kasparov. Now the challenge to world champion Vishy Anand is coming from the next generation: Magnus Carlsen is just 22 and already has the mystique of invincibility.

The fact remains, however, that Adams — Mickey to his friends and admirers — is an extraordinary talent, with a distinctive playing style all his own. Kasparov, who liked coming up with nicknames for his rivals, back in 1999 declared him to be “Spiderman”. The then champion had identified the Englishman’s ability to weave a web around his opponents with cords so subtle and filigree that the target did not even realise that he was being slowly encircled-until it was too late.

This is perhaps another reason why Adams has been insufficiently acclaimed by chess fans. His opening play seems undynamic, with no risks being taken. A draw seems the likely result, but then slowly, almost imperceptibly, Adams seems to have a little something. And when he has even the smallest edge, he is remorseless, with endless reserves of patience.

When I spoke to Mickey in the days after his Dortmund triumph he explained: “I do well in quiet positions because even very strong players think that nothing can happen and so they stop paying maximum attention. People don’t focus their study on quiet positions because they tend to think that almost any move will do. So I deliberately aim to get those positions.”

In this respect, Mickey’s chess style is in tune with his character. He is a quiet man — “of few words” as one admiring article about him in a Russian chess publication observed. He also likes to work on his own. Unlike many other top players, he does not bring a grandmaster assistant or coach with him to the big tournaments. As he put it to me: “I’ve never found it perfect working with others. I prefer to work on my own. You’re on your own at the board, after all.”

This embrace of a certain form of solitariness is possibly the result of his having been born and brought up in Cornwall (both his parents are Cornish), far away from the centre of things. He had very little in the way of chess coaching — and quickly became far too good for any of the local players. At the age of nine, just three years after learning how to move the pieces, he won the Cornish under-15 and under-18 chess championships-playing in both events simultaneously, patiently trotting from one room to the other. Adams left school after taking his GCSEs and became a full-time chess professional at 15, by which time he had already become the world’s youngest International Master.

Yet for all the apparent strangeness of his life, Adams is in no sense the chess oddball of popular prejudice. He is happily married to the Irish actress Tara MacGowran and, while he is much more of a listener than a talker, Mickey is in his laconic way most articulate — as readers of his weekly chess column in the Daily Telegraph will appreciate. 

Perhaps Mickey’s greatest personal asset as a chessplayer (apart from sheer talent) is his imperturbability. He is neither over-excited by success nor depressed by failure — like Kipling’s definition of a man, he treats those two imposters just the same. I recall his calm comment to me after his worst-ever result, when he lost five games in the London Chess Classic of 2011: “These things happen,” he said. “Another time I’ll play not much better and win as many games.”  

Perhaps not surprisingly, Adams’s most difficult opponent has been the world’s highest-rated player, Magnus Carlsen. But when Norway met England in the 2010 Chess Olympiad, our number one, playing White, finally managed to breach Carlsen’s defences: 1.e4 g6 2.d4 Nf6 3.e5 Nh5!? 4.Be2 d6 (an extraordinary opening by Carlsen. It looks as though White can gain a huge plus with 5.Bxh5 gxh5 6.Qxh5. But after 6…Rg8 7.Nf3 Rxg2 8.Ng5 Rxg5! 9.Bxg5 dxe5 10.dxe5 Qd4! Black is actually better) 5.Nf3! (Adams characteristically avoids all unnecessary complications) Nc6 6.exd6 exd6 7.d5 Ne7 8.c4 Bg7 9.Nc3 0-0 10.0-0 Bg4 11.Re1 Re8 12.h3 Bxf3 13.Bxf3 Nf6 14.Bf4 Nd7 15.Rc1 Ne5 16.b3 a6 17.g3 Nf5 18.Bg2 g5 19.Bxe5 Bxe5 20.Ne4 Ng7 21.Qd2 h6 22.f4 gxf4 23.gxf4 Bf6 24.Kh2 Nh5 25.Rg1 Kh7 26.Rcf1 Rg8 27.Qe2 Ng7 28.Qd3 Kh8 29.Bf3! (The start of a deadly manoeuvre with the King’s Bishop: Spiderman is spinning a web to catch the juiciest of flies) b5 30.Bd1 bxc4 31.bxc4 Bh4 32.Bc2 f5 33.Rg6 (threatening nothing less than Rxh6 mate) Kh7 34.Rfg1! (Now if Carlsen grabs the Knight with fxe4 then 35.Qxe4 leads to mate in 4) Qe7 35.Ng3 Bxg3+ 36.Qxg3 Qf7 (the most stubborn defence is 36…Nh5 but then 37.Qf3! Rxg6 38.Bxf5 Ng7 39.Bd3 wins) 37.Bd1! Rae8 38.Rxh6+! and Carlsen resigned. The point of Adams’s quietly lethal 37.Bd1 is seen in the denouement 38…Kxh6 39.Qg5+ Kh7 40.Qh4+ Nh5 41.Bxh5 and Carlsen’s King is not long for this world.