Chess champion Michael Adams’ father taught him to play the game at just seven-years-old.
Today he is the best player in the country, and among the best in the world.
As a child, the Truro -born prodigy was winning local-level tournaments and by the age of 17 he was awarded the title of grandmaster. Apart from world champion, grandmaster is the highest title awarded in chess.
In the coming years he knew he had something special, and was going to make a career from the game.
By the time he was 20 he had moved from his home in Cornwall to London and was travelling internationally and playing some of the world’s top players. Before long, he was one of them – ranked the fourth best player in the world at his peak.
Today the 49-year-old is the best player in the UK and is ranked 25th in the world by the International Chess Federation FIDE.
But no matter how many years he’s been behind the chess board, he says there is always something new to bring to the table and that even among the best, one bad chess move can undo a lot of hard work.
Here Michael ‘Mickey’ Adams speaks to Cornwall Live from his Somerset home all about the world of chess, what it’s like being the best and hit Netflix show The Queen’s Gambit.
You can stay up to date on the top news and events near you with CornwallLive’s FREE newsletters – enter your email address at the top of the page.
Michael Adams wasn’t always destined to be a chess player. In fact, his father had tried to teach him draughts at their Truro home but Adams – who goes by nickname Mickey – wasn’t interested and so he learnt to play chess instead.
He spent his junior years studying the game and learning what he could although admitting his dad only “sort of” knew the rules at the time and he didn’t have many peers to challenge him.
“I learnt when I was seven which is not so unusually young,” he recalled. “But I have been a professional player pretty much since I left school at 17 and I moved out to London two or three years after that.
“Most people who get good learn quite young and some people can inure much earlier than that. I don’t think it’s a particularly key feature but most people who get very good are certainly playing by the age of eight or nine.
“My father taught me draughts but I really wasn’t that interested and then he taught me chess, although he wasn’t a big player himself, he just sort of knew the rules.
“So when I played my first ever tournament in Cornwall which I think was under eights or under tens, I actually won which was the first sign that actually I was quite good at that stage.
“It went from there and I got to play at national level because I had been successful in that and I was quite successful in my first national as well and that got things started.
“I did become the Cornish champion at quite a young age and in some ways Cornwall was not the best place to be for chess because there weren’t so many strong players around to play against after that.”
His national acclaim then led Adams to relocate to London as a teenager.
At the time his being in Cornwall wasn’t the most practical when paired with his consistent travel and the resources for learning the skills just weren’t easy to come by – but his parents and sister still live here in the county.
“It was quite a long time ago,” he said. “Whereas now you can play chess online 24 hours of the day and there is a lot of advanced tuition in terms of videos and chess databases.
“That sort of stuff didn’t really exist for me so you had to play tournaments and read books so it was a much less high-tech learning environment so distance was a big factor back then.
“It did give me a bit of independence because I had to work out a lot more things for myself. I didn’t have that much in terms of training because there weren’t that many strong players around to learn off so I learnt a lot more by playing and working things out for myself which definitely had its advantages.”
By the time he was 20 he was one of the rare few players to be able to make any money from chess saying only the “world’s elite” make it to a point where they can make a paycheck from the game.
“You need to have a very high world ranking in maybe the top 50 players in the world and income differences can be quite substantial depending on which level you are at,” he continued. “So there really aren’t many people who can make money as a professional chess player.
Follow our People of Cornwall Facebook group for more human interest stories from Cornwall.
This group is a safe space dedicated solely to the stories that have PEOPLE at the heart of them.
We celebrate achievements and bravery from our unsung heroes, raise awareness around important topics and educate others, give a voice to victims and we also do it for the people who would just like a glimpse of ‘how the other half’ live as they say.
“You need to be in the world’s elite to do it so that was never in anyway a certainty for me growing-up because as you move up the levels it is obviously much harder to improve.
“But by the time I was 17 and a grandmaster I was still improving quite fast and over the next year or two it was clear that I was going to get to the elite level required which I have pretty much maintained throughout my career.
“It’s very hard to say and there is no certainty in anything. Like anything, in chess you need to carry on improving and that can get quite difficult. Some people hit a sort of barrier and don’t really move forward from a certain level.”
To date his chess career has seen him travel to over 17 countries and he has had the opportunity to play many of the best chess players in the world – including current world leader Magnus Carlsen – but Adams says things are changing and the world of chess is not what you might have seen in hit Netflix mini-series The Queen’s Gambit.
“I travelled for just two tournaments last year but would usually travel far more,” he said. “In the period we are in, online chess has been a big thing with people being able to spectate top tournaments all around the world, and the kind of coverage provided in terms of commentary has also created a big audience.
“Particularly during the pandemic people have had quite a lot of time at home and have perhaps chosen to play a few games themselves and they now follow a lot of the professional commentary.
“There has also been a series of top-level online tournaments which have had very big audiences and The Queen’s Gambit series has also brought chess even more into the limelight.
“I think a mix of those three factors has driven a lot more attention to chess and online has been really secondary part until now. Chess in general has also grown to quicker time limits over the years.
“When I started off games would be adjourned . So at some stage someone would seal their next move in an envelope and then there would be a break. But now all games are played to a finish and I think people are not so interested in very long games.”
He also admitted to being pretty impressed with The Queen’s Gambit on Netflix, although, being a grandmaster himself, he did spot a few technical chess errors.
“It’s very nicely done and they obviously had very high level chess advisers. There were a few technical chess errors which I’m sure were not to do with the advisers but it is always difficult when you’re trying to combine art with chess in that way.
“But I thought a lot of it was quite good. Obviously a lot of it was quite glamorised for the nature of television but a lot of the acting was very good and I remember reading the original book when I was fairly young and I think it sticks pretty closely to it.”
But he says glamorisation aside that there are elements that show the world of chess in its true light.
“When she goes to the apartment in New York that is true of chess players, living in far from impressive apartments, and it did have a bit of a balance in that sense. The first tournament she plays in is in a school which is also fairly typical.
“I have played in incredibly special venues throughout the world and in some tournaments you can be in beautiful hotel rooms and great venues, but I have also played in freezing leisure centres and schools at the weekend. So chess is like that.
“There are both sides and at an elite level the tournaments might not be quite as glamorised as that but there are some special venues like the ones shown.”
Adams retains his title as the best chess player in Britain and currently stands at 25 out of 100 on the International Chess Federation FIDE leaderboard.
Only four other professional players from England join him on the list with the best players hailing from countries like Russia, the United States, China, India and Ukraine.
He said it has been noted that from a person’s mid-thirties there is a gradual decline in one’s chess game, but that many players retain a high level well into their fifties.
But after turning 49 in 2020 he has been moved into what is known as the senior’s section but doesn’t have any plans to hang up his chessboard yet.
“Chess is about expanding and moving forward so you are always looking for new ideas and to bring something new and challenging to the game,” he said.
“Everyone has their favourite systems that they have played for a long time and become an expert in and they have their own opening repertoire that they tend to go back to again and again and that works well for players.
“But it’s the same as anything. You’re not going to be successful at what worked the year before. The way to stay at the top is to have a fresh attitude.
“I still have a pretty respectable world ranking and am interested in playing against the best players for as long as I can.
“It’s a tricky position because I’ve never had quite a break like this of not playing during my entire career so it is going to be unclear when things come back.
“But I think it doesn’t really matter how old people are in chess. Young players can be very strong and my play hasn’t really declined yet.
“I’ve had bad years but not a massive overall decline and I’m still very much in the rating range I have held throughout my career and I will carry on as long as possible.
“I’ve never really thought further ahead but at this age there are no guarantees in chess.”
Speaking of what it takes to be at the top of your game in the chess world he said “it takes a lot of work”, adding “the problem with chess is the stamina required. It is a game where just one bad move can undo a lot of hard work.
“There are a wide range of chess players and some of them are super smart but a lot of chess players are not necessarily that intelligent or that academic, they just have a real aptitude for chess.
“One area where The Queen’s Gambit was not very accurate is that she becomes very good at chess very quickly and doesn’t face much resistance, she just sort of beats everyone she comes across up to a certain level.”
Even for a strong player in the real world he says “it doesn’t work like that” and that even the finest players will have some resistance as they progress to play at higher levels.
“But almost all people who are good at chess have put huge amounts of time into playing and studying and its mainly the determination and the time you dedicate,” he continued.
“That being said some people clearly have a natural talent but nearly all of them will have worked very hard at some stage and I think that is true of most things in life.”