"Unless you are emotionally invested, it's tough to become a good coach" - An interview with top coach RB Ramesh

by Dhananjay Khadilkar
9/7/2022 – A major highlight of this year's Chess Olympiad was the stellar performance of the India 2 team. Composed mostly of teenage grandmasters, it finished third and narrowly missed gold. Grandmaster RB Ramesh was the coach of the young team. When he recently was in the Paris suburb of Asnieres to share his experience with 25 French coaches, he talked to Dhananjay Khadilkar about the Olympiad, his career, his students, the secrets of becoming a good coach, and more. | Photos: Dhananjay Khadilkar

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How and when did you decide to become a coach?

In 1998, I got an invitation from the Indian Chess Federation to accompany the U20 teams as a coach for the Asian Junior Championship. I was 22 years old then, not much older than the players. Both the boys and girls won gold medals, but not because of my training. It's just that they were very strong players. That was my first introduction to coaching. I then got an opportunity to work with Aarthi Ramaswamy who won the world under 18 championship the following year. This gave me a lot of confidence that I could be a good trainer at a young age. More players started approaching me to help them. Most of the players I worked with showed rapid improvement in a very short span of time. That's when I realised that I can be a better coach than a player.

Was coaching inherent to you or did becoming a good coach involve a lot of hard work?

It's a bit of both. Talent alone doesn't make up for everything. You need to learn with a lot of effort. That's a crucial part of progress. I worked really hard to be and to become a good trainer. I used to take classes from 4 am until 9 pm. Working for 14-15 hours a day was normal routine for close to 10 years. So there was a lot of hard work involved.

Which personalities inspired you as a coach?

I was greatly inspired by the famous Russian coach Mark Dvoretsky. As a player, I had read his books on chess training, It helped me a lot. He brought in some new perspectives on how to look at positions, how to analyze them and so on. It also showed how to learn new ways of thinking. I realized that if these books can make such a difference to a wide number of audience, the role of a coach is something very crucial.

Mark Dvoretsky, 9.12.1947 to 26.09.2016 | Photo: Amruta Mokal

How crucial is the role of a coach against the backdrop of the advent of chess software, engines and of the internet?

I think it's more relevant now than before. That's because earlier everyone was learning on their own. So the ones who learned better became better players. But now, everyone has access to computers and internet. Everyone has good analytical tools in the form of engines and also access to information in the form of databases and books.

However, it also means there is too much of information. Players simply cannot process all this information on their own. It's therefore very important to sift through this vast amount of information and find out what is really relevant to that individual. That is where coaches can step in. They can show the direction and pinpoint areas where players need to work.

Moreover, these days, players are under tremendous pressure because of intense competition. Even very young children of eight or nine are under tremendous pressure. This wasn't the case earlier. They want to be world champions in different age categories. They are already beginning their career with this pressure. The role of trainer is therefore very important in teaching them how to bypass this pressure and focus on their improvement.

Does today's coaching involve more than just teaching chess techniques?

Nowadays, the coaches' role is not just restricted to chess but also focuses on aspects such as psychology, handling different challenges on and off the board and ensuring players develop good habits away from the board as well.

These days many children have access to the Internet. Since most of the top tournaments in Europe or US happen during the night time in India, they develop a habit of going to bed very late, getting up very late, skipping breakfast and so on. These are very unhealthy habits as a human being and more so as a player. My role also includes teaching them how to avoid bad habits including getting addicted to video games, TV series etc.  These things can easily make them bad players and not help them learn effectively.

 Is it difficult to inspire children and instill discipline at the same time?

On the contrary, it's very difficult to inculcate discipline into someone older as they tend to be more prone to resist change. Young children are very acceptable to change and new ways of looking at things. It's easier to convince a child than an adult. We underestimate young children. We assume they won't understand these things, but if they are told they have to be disciplined, they have to be hard working, they do so very well. I generally tell my students not to play for incentives. My emphasis is on them becoming very strong players. Once they become strong, the so-called incentives will come along their way automatically.

 What is the difference between a coach and a second?

The role of a second is mostly restricted to coming up with new and effective opening ideas which can be used by the concerned player and also doing plenty of analysis with engines. It is not necessarily about making changes in a player's thinking process. On the other hand, a trainer or a coach, is more personally involved in the players' development. We look at all aspects both on and off the board. I think coaching is more intense.

What are the secrets of becoming a good coach?

One has to be very really passionate about and enjoy teaching. It should not be seen just as a profession or a means to make a living. A coach has to to go through both the happy and difficult moments the player goes through. He or she has to go through all the emotions, empathize with the players and guide them in the proper way. It's a very intense process. Unless you are emotionally invested, it's tough to become a good coach.

As the India B coach at the Olympiad, did you have emotional highs and lows during the event?

Of course. There were players who were getting very upset after a loss which is very natural.  We had team meetings and some one-to-one sessions with the players. From the beginning I was stressing it was very important that everyone should be ready to play till the last round. And that no one should get into a bad form or in a bad mood.

Ivan Sokolov, Ramesh

Ivan Sokolov, coach of Uzbekistan (background) and RB Ramesh during the crucial match Uzbekistan vs India 2 at the Chess Olympiad 2022 in Chennai | Photo: Lennart Ootes

How has coaching evolved since you first started in 1998?

There will always be all kinds of coaches. There will be some very strong players who do training to make some extra money, but they are not very committed. Sometimes strong players are not necessarily good coaches because they are good at playing the game but not at explaining things or empathizing with what others are going through.  So there will always be different types of coaches, those who are efficient and effective, and those who are not investing time in their own growth as trainers. Earlier, if you became a grandmaster, a job in a good company was guaranteed. But now we have so many grandmasters in India that top companies have stopped recruiting chess players. 

So, we have a situation where even if you become a grandmaster you still have no guaranteed ways to make a good living out of chess. That is pushing many young players, as early as 20 to 23, to become coaches. We are seeing a new crop of young grandmasters becoming coaches which in a way is very good. If they see training not just as a means to make a living, but instead as a passion and they keep upgrading themselves, become better coaches and produce champions for the country, that will be fantastic.  

What do you make of your student Praggnanandhaa's recent win over world champion Magnus Carlsen in a rapid tournament?

I don't want to put too much stress on individual game results. Any player is capable of beating anyone on a given day, but to do it consistently is the key. Magnus is extremely strong in all formats of the game. So, to defeat Magnus, albeit in a rapid format, is creditworthy. But Pragg’s aim is, I believe, to become a world champion in the standard time control format. He has to learn the lessons from these experiences and use them in the standard time control as well.

Praggnanandhaa | Photo: ChessBase India

He needs to get his rating to 2750 plus very soon. It's only then he will get a chance to play with the top guys on a consistent basis. He needs to be patient and use whatever opportunities he gets to play in the standard time control, win as many games as possible and get his rating up quickly. but at the same time not compromise on putting his best effort and become a stronger player in the process. 

I think that is more important. Nowadays. many players have shown that it is possible to beat 2600 plus players consistently if you are a strong player. But the real challenge is to beat 2700 and 2750 plus players consistently. Whoever manages to do that will become the world champion.

Thank you very much!

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Dhananjay is a Paris based journalist and a chess enthusiast. While he enjoys playing the game, he is more fascinated by the drama and history associated with it.
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