Published on April 24, 2020

Michael (Mickey) Adams


The ant-eater is related to the sloth. This doesn’t seem like a good recommendation for a chess player, but patience and unflappability are good characteristics in the tough world of professional chess!

The style of Michael Adams was aptly characterized by Boris Gelfand (after he had won their mutual match, that is…): ‘Highly developed positional play, coupled with excellent calculating ability.’ By the way, Mickey himself thinks that the latter is one of his weaknesses, according to an interview in Kingpin! His concentration and cold-bloodedness, however, are solid assets. Contrary to John Nunn (who takes a stroll after practically every move), Adams is mostly chained to the board (‘I only get up from the board when there’s nothing more to see’). And he is in good company: Bobby Fischer had the same habit.
Of most top players, not many games are known from their childhood days. Jonathan Speelman, for instance, mentions a few ‘juvenilia’ in his Best games book, but he was already twelve when he played the first of them. Adams (and also Judit Polgar) is an exception: he wrote two books together with his father. Especially the first of these (Development of a Grandmaster) offers an interesting look into his earliest development. Even though most of the text was written by his father, the insights of the fresh grandmaster looking back are very entertaining – and instructive at the same time!

Adams had – and still has – a limited opening repertoire. With white he plays 1.e4, and with black 1…e5 (against 1.e4) and Nimzo- and Queen’s Indian (against 1.d4). At the current juncture, Maxime Vachier-Lagrave is an adherent of this approach, like Genna Sosonko was in the Netherlands in bygone days. In his youth, Adams has been known to be guilty of playing the Dragon, but this was soon exchanged for the French and the Caro-Kann, and later the Ruy Lopez and the Petroff. This may appear limited, but as Nunn once wrote: 1…e5 can lead to almost any kind of position!

The ultimate test of a top player (Adams was ranked fourth in the world for a considerable amount of time) is: how can you stand up against a World Champion? In this respect, Adams shows two faces. Against champions with a similar style (Karpov, Kramnik and Carlsen), he did fine. Playing Carlsen with black was often a bridge too far, but Adams wasn’t the only one with that problem. Against Kasparov and Anand, on the other hand, he often had a hard time, resulting in heavy minus scores with both colours.

From my own experience I can tell you what it is like to face such top players. For example, I remember very well my game against Alexander Grischuk (WCh Fischer Random in Mainz), in which he treated me to bouncing bishops. I’ve had the occasion to play against Adams three times. In the semifinal of the Kilkenny Pandemonium I obtained a very good position with black in the Rauzer, where Adams first defended very neatly, and then killed me mercilessly. Then the second game followed a typical course: he neutralized all of my attempts to complicate, and then generously allowed me to reach a drawn ending with some trouble.

In our only serious game, a few years later, he took it easy, first letting me blow off steam, then cashing in a couple of pawns, and finally smashing my king’s position to smithereens. When I met him at the airport later, we had a pleasant ‘Nachmachdeutsch’ for a while. His wife (the actress Tara MacGowran) was surprised to find her husband engaged in animated conversation with a perfect stranger. ‘I played him in the first round’ was sufficient explanation for her… (PvV)