When the Indian team for the 2014 Chess Olympiad was announced, many were surprised. This was because it comprised inexperienced players such as M R Lalith Babu, B Adhiban, S P Sethuraman along with the somewhat experienced Parimarjan Negi and K Sasikiran. Barring Negi and Sasikiran, the others had never taken part in an Olympiad. Still, India went on to win the bronze medal at the Tromso event in Norway, ahead of chess powerhouse Russia.
India had to encounter almost all the top chess-playing nations in their campaign. At one point of time, it had earned 6/6 points, though eventually, it finished third. The players hardly lost any match, earning respect from the top guns.
The next year at World Youth 2015, India earned five gold medals with all of the winners hailing from Chennai and the Chess Gurukul Academy.
A common factor to both is R B Ramesh, who was the Olympiad team coach and is the founder of Chess Gurukul. A grandmaster himself and winner of the 2002 British Chess Championship and the 2007 Commonwealth Championship, Ramesh is more in the news now after India’s 12-year-old new sensation R Praggnanandhaa became the world’s second-youngest chess grandmaster.
Ramesh is an unsung hero among Indian coaches, says a national chess player who has watched his progress from when he was in his teens. “He has produced 40-50 world champions in different age categories and still, he hasn’t got the Dronacharya Award, which one chess coach got for just getting a player win the Asian chess women championship,” says the player on condition of anonymity.
R B Ramesh isn’t the one who is looking to make quick bucks. Ask Aravindh Chithambaram, who comes from an underprivileged background but is willing to go the extra mile to succeed in the game. Ramesh brought him from Chennai and is training him without charging anything. He has also got him sponsors.
“Ramesh has got a table to play table-tennis for his wards. It’s another thing that his young son has begun to do well in table tennis. But the guru has taught his wards yoga and what not, all out of his own interest,” says the player.
The chess guru was his famed down-to-earth self when Swarajya caught up with him.
Despite his busy schedule including accompanying Praggnanandhaa for a chess tournament in Spain, Ramesh took out time to respond to our queries on his journey so far as a coach.
For Ramesh, it all began at the age of 12 in 1988 when he started playing chess after Viswanathan Anand became a grandmaster. “Back then, chess was just a pursuit of passion. I did not have any coach to learn from. It was more of trial-and-error and learning from a few chess books we could gain access to,” he says.
Two events changed the course of his life and turned him into a coach. The first one came sometime in 1992-93 when, after winning a tournament at Sangli in Maharashtra, he played and lost against a 10-year-old girl in a tournament in Chennai. It upset Ramesh so much that he withdrew from the tournament. Five years later, the girl’s parents approached him to coach her. He readily agreed as he thought it would help him earn some money. In 1999, the girl, Aarthie Ramaswamy, who later became his wife, won the World under-18 championship in Spain. That was when he realised that he could become a teacher of chess. The second was his own experience of having to suffer due to lack of a coach. “One primary motivation for me to become a chess coach was that I felt there are many players out there who could benefit from the experience and knowledge our generation of players possessed,” says Ramesh.
But he is quick to sound out a note of caution. “I was playing chess merely because I liked to play it and a victory over the opponent gave some kind of satisfaction and accomplishment. Some parents today decide that their children should play chess only to ecome world champions, says the Chess Gurukul academy chief, who quit his job with Indian Oil Corporation. “They don’t take into account their children’s talent or the lack of it, working ability, learning capacity, passion or lack of it, for chess. They think if their children are given proper infrastructure and opportunities, they can achieve anything. For some parents, it is an ego issue as well. They want their children not to lose. I have personally seen many children getting affected as a result of such an approach and it is sad to really see them go through all this,” he regrets, adding that a young mind needs time and space to evolve. “Some weaknesses take much longer to be overcome. If we expect children to meet our expectations all the time, it has a damaging effect on the child’s personality in the long run,” Ramesh cautions.
This is where the role of a good chess coach is crucial. “To be a good chess coach or a teacher in any field, one needs a variety of qualities. First and foremost is the passion for the subject. We should feel the yearning to share what we know with the younger generation and make them better in all aspects of the game, make them better than what we are,” he says. “We have made many mistakes, done things we should not have done and as a result paid the price. Most importantly, we learnt our lessons the hard way,” Ramesh says and points out that many mistakes that young players make are avoidable with proper approach and knowledge.
This approach had once drawn criticism from a European coach who asked Ramesh not to teach everything he knew since he could soon run out of ideas to teach. “I endeavour to teach everything I know and keep updating my knowledge and skills so we can meet the demands of our students. We should not withhold anything and go the extra mile to help our students,” he says.
Ramesh finds the age of computers, internet and analytics changing the world of chess, especially the training methods. “In the former Soviet Union, chess had state patronage, a lot of funding was available and a good system that took roots and evolved. The emphasis was on studying and learning from past masters, preference to understanding endgames over brutal calculation power,” he says about the Russian system that has changed with the age of computers and internet.
“Humans have benefited a lot by working with computers. They defend better than before, and calculation standards have rapidly risen. Earlier, information was available only in Russian language but since the breakup of the Soviet Union, their grandmasters have travelled to other countries and knowledge has become more accessible to people in the West. Asia has benefited in this process too.”
However, there is a downside to use of technology. “Human touch and creativity has suffered a little bit. Analytical engines show fantastic, creative ideas and we humans are trying to imitate them in our games. Players might think twice before embarking on a creative, but risky idea because they could be scared over the thought that computers might refute them easily,” says Ramesh.
So, how do coaches like him spot talent and nurture it? It isn’t tough if “we look for the right things,” he says. “Talented kids usually come up with moves that confront critical elements of the position. They are confident, don’t hesitate too much to take decisions, sense what is going on well and have a good capacity to learn things that are taught to them. They are passionate and have good concentration.”
Once a talented kid is identified, he or she should be taught to play for long-term objectives than short-term gains. Logical decision-making, time management during game, handling losses, learning from criticism, handling pressure on their own accord are as important as technical aspects of a game, he says.
Ramesh is rather philosophical about his way of coaching. “Results are like a shadow and the effort is ourselves. A shadow should follow a person; similarly, results should follow effort,” he says, adding that neither winning is good nor is losing bad - they are just happenings. “Losing or winning are both learning experiences and as such, every game, every tournament is important and an opportunity to learn,” he sums up.
That brings us to the topic of the latest sensation, Praggnanandhaa. “We simply did not focus on making the grandmaster norm but tried to focus on improving constantly. We tried our best to shield Praggnanandhaa by limiting his exposure to media during competitions and it helped to an extent,” Ramesh says. Besides, the kid himself is hard-working, being extremely good at learning by himself, putting in his own efforts. “Praggnanandhaa’s parents, his earlier coach Thiagu, his sponsors and his school Velammal all played their role well,” the coach says.
Ramesh says Indian chess has a bright future. After the bronze medal at the 2014 Chess Olympiad, other countries have begun to respect India’s strength. “We have more than 50 grandmasters and it’s getting better by the day. Many are taking to the game at a very young age and are becoming world beaters. Notable besides Praggnanandhaa are Nihal Sarin, Gukesh, Divya Deshmukh, Rakshitha Ravi, Raunak, Aditya Mittal and many other kids who are torch-bearers for the future,” he adds.
Ramesh also interacts with players who aren’t his students to get different perspectives. “People handle similar issues differently and for a coach, it is important to have a wide variety of solutions,” he says, adding that he used to interact with an Iranian player in tournaments, leading to an emotional or intellectual bond. “Glad to know he has crossed 2,600 (in ELO rating) recently,” he says.
The 2,600 rating is a milestone in a player’s career. “It shows one has arrived on the chess scene. The next big challenge is to get to 2,700, which is an elite category so to say,” Ramesh says, adding that motivation to achieve more, nerves to handle pressure, depth in opening operation and invitation to participate in strong-closed events are the challenges a player has to overcome post-2,600 levels.
The Chess Gurukul founder works predominantly with Indian players as he wants the country to become a superpower. But Ramesh works online with players from other countries such as Australia, US, Africa, UK and China too. “Learning has no boundaries and it is an enriching experience to work with players from different backgrounds,” he adds.
The other thing Ramesh is known for is his commentary. During the 2013 World Chess Championships at Chennai between Vishwanathan Anand and Magnus Carlsen, his commentary drew rave reviews. But as of now, it is not his cup of tea. “My heart is in coaching. Probably in future, I will branch out to other areas,” he says.
Ramesh lives with his family in Chennai. His wife Aarthie, a woman grandmaster, plays a chess tournament or two when she gets time. His 12-year-old daughter, Varsha, is showing interest in chess and has begun working hard on it. But his seven-year-old son, Karthik, loves table tennis and, found pretty good for his age, is undergoing professional training.
M.R. Subramani is Executive Editor, Swarajya. He tweets @mrsubramani
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