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RB Ramesh: Taking India and chess to the world

Seventeen years ago, RB Ramesh walked into a tournament hall in Mumbai as a player and what followed changed the course of his life.

Grand Master RB Ramesh runs the Chennai-based academy Chess Gurukul.(Arijit Sen/HT Photo)

“I was somewhat taken aback when players at almost every table greeted me,” recalled Ramesh. “All of them were my students. Aarthie (his wife, a former chess player) and I stood in the hall and counted. We realised that around 40 of my students were participating, which was as many as I was coaching at the time.”

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That day, Ramesh told himself that it was time to quit playing and do more of what he was good at – training other players. Two years later in 2008, he left the government job and set up his academy, Chess Gurukul, in Chennai. Grandmaster siblings Praggnanandhaa and Vaishali are among its most distinguished pupils and Ramesh was recently chosen for the Dronacharya Award – India’s highest honour for sports coaches.

There’s another dimension to this rousing success story. The 47-year-old is now seeding his training methods in other parts of the world. While still early, he’s already had some great results.

The Romanian chess federation signed a collaboration with Ramesh in December 2022 to train players between the age of eight and 14 over six in-person sessions a year. Ramesh is also head coach of the Offerspill Chess Club in Norway, owned by five-time world champion Magnus Carlsen.

For the first time in over two decades, Romania won two gold medals at the European Youth Championships in September.

“We are learning how to study chess from Ramesh,” said Gabriel Grecescu, secretary general of the Romanian Chess Federation. Ramesh was on Gabriel’s wish list of coaches for around six years.

“When Romania approached me ahead of last year’s Olympiad to overhaul their training system, my suggestion was to start with young players,” Ramesh said. Three hours into the first day of Ramesh’s week-long session, two of the young attendees burst into tears. “It was too much chess for them,” he said, “They weren’t used to it. We explained to them what we were trying to achieve. I’ve had quite a few camps since and now they seem more comfortable and eager.”

From a coaching perspective, the key difference between India and the West lies in work ethics, said Ramesh. “Kids there are used to only a couple of hours of training, which isn’t too structured or serious. In terms of skills, they can be just as good.”

One of the first things Ramesh did when he turned full-time coach was to stop reading chess books. An admirer of Dvoretsky, he realised that much like the legendary Russian trainer, he’d have to develop a coaching methodology that would consist of building training modules taking into account each student’s strengths and weaknesses, rather than slap-dash generic solutions to specific problems.

“I took up the assignments in Romania and Norway because I was curious to find out if my training methods were only effective with Indian players or work with those from different cultures and backgrounds.”

Similar to the approach he adopted with Praggnanandhaa and Vaishali in their early years, Ramesh chooses not to focus on opening preparation with his young students from other parts of the world as well. “Openings are the easiest to learn and teach. I’d rather focus on making them better chess players. It starts with streamlining their thinking process. When they look at a position, they should know what to look for, how to interpret it, the different approaches available and how to choose between options. Building decision-making, evaluation and analytical skills early is key.”

Unlike a more collectivist culture in Asian countries, people in the West are largely individualist. The latter doesn’t particularly help Ramesh’s style. “People don’t like giving or receiving advice in general in the West. I’ve told my students that since I belong to a different culture, I’ll be taking liberties and it’s on them if they feel offended,” he laughed, “I know they’d love to know more about what Pragg and Vaishali have done but perhaps consider it too intrusive to ask. So, I take it upon myself to share their stories. I love bonding closely with my students, being a part of their lives even outside chess and offering unsolicited advice. Almost like a parent.”

It’s this shift in approach that’s bringing results, said Grecescu. “We’re noticing that how our kids look at chess is changing. They’ve begun to realise that not just what they do in the games, but also what they do between rounds, tournaments and outside chess, impacts their performance. Ramesh is great both with the technical aspects and interpersonal skills, and that’s making a difference.”

There’s a huge interest in the European chess community over young Indian players faring exceptionally well. “Sometimes I feel they’re intimidated by this. Against Indians, you almost feel like they’re not even resisting or playing to their potential. The intrigue over strength works in favour of Indian players. It’s easier to play someone who respects you too much.”

As a player, Ramesh battled with mental demons. It’s perhaps why he likes to delve deep and probe for solutions as a coach. “Most are aware of their problems – whether it’s fear of facing a higher-rated player or something else, but few intervene and make changes. I think a lot about these things and then try out the solutions with a few students. When they work, I try it with another bunch of students. When it’s effective with different students, I know I’m on the right path.”

Over the years, Ramesh has felt slighted by the lack of recognition. He applied for the Dronacharya Award in 2015 but was awarded zero points. He had no intention of applying this time, but Aarthie insisted. Over a decade and a half into the job, he currently trains around 150 students from around the world. His day starts at 5 am with classes with US-based students online followed by sessions for three groups of around 40 Norway players.

Plans are afoot to expand the programme in Romania, bringing in new sponsors and more students. This aside from his Indian trainees, two of whom are headed to next year’s Candidates tournament. He travels to Romania every other month for a week and also visits his Offerspill students. The jetlag takes longer to wear off these days. Age catching up perhaps, he joked.

Ramesh has had to turn down offers from several national federations since there’s only so much he can do in a day. Money doesn’t excite him as much as a walk with a student or a dinner with a parent who’s seeking answers. Romanian federation officials too reach out to him these days when they go through a tough time. “They (the Romanian federation) call me their ‘therapist’,” Ramesh laughed, “It’s what comes with being a coach.”

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