Vaidyaraman street in T. Nagar, Chennai is a small, quiet 500-meter bylane in an otherwise busy area of the city, which has heavy security protection at the entrance and exit, thanks to the head offices of BJP and CPI(M). Bang in the middle of that small street, is an apartment that would escape your attention if you’re not looking close enough.
As I wait by the elevator to take me to the first floor, a 12-year-old kid walks past, with a backpack, lunch bag in one hand and a blue mobile phone on the other, taking the stairs. The unassuming 12-year-old is the youngest International Master in Chess history, R Praggnanandha. And located in this heavily guarded street, but blissfully hidden, is the nursery of chess prodigies – Chess Gurukul.
Founded by RB Ramesh and his wife Aartie Ramaswamy – both of them Grandmasters – in 2008, Chess Gurukul is considered in the chess community to be at the forefront of training kids to play the game of kings. For context, India had three top 10 finishers at the recent World Youth Championships in Traviso Italy and Chess Gurukul is where all three of them learn their trade. And in the 9 years since it’s been operational, these are the numbers the academy has racked up:
It’s fair to say Ramesh and Co know how to produce winners.
The Origin Story
Ramesh started playing chess as a 12-year-old in 1988, inspired by Viswanathan Anand. Ten years later he was made coach of the Indian junior team – a 22-year-old, coaching the under-20 kids. The team did well winning both the boys and girls titles. That year, he would also take on a certain Aartie Ramaswamy under his wings. Within a year, she won the U-18 World Championship. It was big news. It was the first title any Indian had won since Viswanathan Anand.
It was a turning point in his life, in more than one way, as he would go on to marry Aartie and eventually start Chess Gurukul together in 2008. And that was also the point Ramesh realised, in addition to playing the game of kings, he could be a good coach as well. He started teaching kids privately, and his belief was reinforced.
“The early success gave me a lot of confidence that I can choose training as an alternate career. But whether it’d be financially viable or not, I wasn’t sure,” Ramesh tells The Field, during an interaction at his academy. “I was at a well-paid job in ONGC (Deputy Manager) and there was no prior example for me to fall back on. In 2008, I decided to take the plunge. The day I left my job, I officially retired as the player and started Chess Gurukul. I was reasonably good as a player, but coaching was closer to the heart. I felt like I could make a real difference.”
Everyone who has ever left a high-paying job to pursue their passion would know that is the first question they are inevitably faced with: will I have financial insecurity?
“Yes, there was financial insecurity but I also knew there was a demand for good coaching in chess. Till the late 90s, I found that Indians used to learn chess through our own efforts,” recalls Ramesh. “It was only around 1998 that the Indian Federation decided to bring in foreign coaches. That made a massive difference. Till then, you could say we had an inferiority complex competing against foreign Grandmasters. We used to lose without much of a fight. But the moment we got the exposure the results improved drastically.”
And it shows. Till 1997, India had produced only three Grandmasters – Anand (1988), Dibyendu Barua (1991) and Praveen Thipsay (1997). But starting with K Sasikiran and Abhijit Kunte at the turn of the millenium India has produced close to 50 Grandmasters – Ramesh himself earning his title in 2003.
“It became very clear that good training makes a massive difference,” he says.
“And the second most important thing was international exposure. While most of us participated in the Indian tournaments, it was only when we started touring more we realised how underrated we were. I couldn’t do much about that, but I knew I could make a difference as a coach. So Chess Gurukul was formed in the same place where it is today, with U Ashwini as our only student during the inauguration day,” he says with a loud laugh, before adding with pride:
“Now, you could say we are something of a global brand.”
One look at Ramesh’s daily schedule and you know this is not an easy task. He wakes up at 3:45 am in the morning for the online sessions – Gurukul has around 250 kids in the USA, and few from Europe, Australia, Middle East and Africa – and that goes on for about four hours. About an hour later, the classes in the academy, located in the first floor of the same apartment that Ramesh lives in, begin. That goes on till around 1:30 in the noon, when the kids take a break. Ramesh uses that to sneak in a few more online classes. From 3:30 to 7:30, it’s back to teaching the kids at the academy. This was his routine till a year back, he says.
And what’s changed now?
“I wake up at 5 am instead of 3:45, I get an extra hour of sleep,” he laughs.
He’s assisted by a few trainers. His wife, Aartie, trains the kids every now and then, but she has the unenviable task of managing the academy. She handles the administration aspect.
A Grandmaster couple. How did they meet? Well, not surprisingly, across the chess board.
“When I was 16, I won a tournament in Maharashtra. And I came back to Chennai to play another tournament, on a high. And in the very first round, I lost to this girl – a 11-year-old,” he recalls with a smile. “I withdrew from the tournament after the first round, very angry at myself. So yes, we met on the board.”
Ramesh then became her coach in 1998, and in 2003, both became Grandmasters. And in the same year, they got married.
At the end of the day dealing with more than a hundred kids on a daily basis is no easy feat. Ramesh insists that, for him, nothing is more important than making a kid understand that playing chess is not just about winning. It’s not just about the results. If the game doesn’t make you happy, then results won’t matter.
“Parents these days come to me with great expectations and wanting immediate results. It’s good, in a way, that they are willing to back their kids but on the flip side, they don’t understand the game, they don’t understand what it takes to produce a champion,” he says. “A child shouldn’t begin their journey aiming for success, I believe it takes away the joy from the game. Bottomline is that, I want my kids to play chess because they like chess – that passion and enjoyment should be the real reason to succeed.”
Is it possible for Ramesh to stay that way, when, let’s say, a kid he knows is very talented but the results are not showing? Is he, as the coach, able to remain objective?
“Yes, it does affect me personally. Take for instance, Pragg won his first GM norm recently. Just before that, he played in a tournament in Russia – it was a disaster. That affected me. He was losing to players rated much below him. After the first loss, I was quite upset but I didn’t convey it to him. And he lost twice again. Then, I realised this was perhaps good, because everything cannot go smoothly for him – every one needs a ‘check’ once in a while,” he says, smirking at his own chess reference.
“I realised that was a chance for him bring back the fire in the belly, and that’s what I conveyed to him after the tournament. I was only worried if the bad run would affect his self belief, but I realised it didn’t. And soon, sure enough, he earned his first GM norm.”
And the significance of the support system, especially for kids, cannot be under-estimated.
“It is the most important aspect, I believe. For a kid, the people closest to him should never lose confidence in his/her ability.”
The Money Factor
Unlike most other sports, Chess doesn’t require infrastructure. Bring a board and the pieces, along with a table and a couple of chairs, voila – you are set. But one inescapable hindering factor in chess is the money involved to get a firm footing in the game.
“Drop out rate in chess is very high,” Ramesh says. “It’s sometimes to do with stagnating after an initial burst of success, and sometimes expenditure is a problem too. In my experience, I have seen plenty of kids drop out once they reach 10th grade, to focus on academics. I have realised that the most important age for a talented kid to succeed professionally, is having success between the age 6 and 14. If they show they can succeed at that level, it’s easier to convince them to make a career out of this sport. It’s easier to attract sponsorship as well.”
Is taking care of the financial aspect something Ramesh does?
“Initially, I stayed away from that,” admits Ramesh. “But I saw lot of medallists at the junior level, graduate to just becoming above-average once they crossed 18-19 because they couldn’t travel abroad consistently. That’s when I started exploring the idea of crowd-funding and that’s worked well. Aravindh Chithambaram, who made three GM norms in the space of a few months, was able to do so because of crowd-funding. That’s when I realised I could contribute there as well and we started the Chess Gurukul charitable trust. I have used social media to ask for donations and pass it along to kids who need the money.”
“I love working with kids,” beams Ramesh, on how he keeps going. “I somehow connect with them more than people my own age. If the kids are naughty, I enjoy teaching them even more.”
And spending a day at the Gurukul, the fact that the kids really enjoy being there is inescapable. There is not a dull moment. Whether it’s playing a game of blitz chess, or cracking a puzzle that Ramesh gave them, or pulling each others’ legs when out in the terrace playing table tennis, or winking and smiling at each other while performing some uncomfortable yoga exercises.
And Ramesh doesn’t miss these break sessions either. He’s the first to pull out his cell-phone, to record when Praggnanandha comes to the table with a paddle in his end. An incredible chess player, his hand-eye coordination is not the best – getting a serve across the net is a big deal for him. And Ramesh gives him a hard time for that, like any good friend would. And the kid, who is as shy as you would expect a 12-year-old to be when made to sit with a journalist, is a bundle of energy when playing with his friends. The bond that the mentors and mentees share clearly goes beyond just chess.
“I believe it’s important to have that sort of an atmosphere, where we enjoy each other’s company. A lot of academies prioritise one-on-one sessions, but I always have my kids train in groups. And I try to make sure it’s a good mix – there is no differentiation in terms of age or their ELO ratings. I want my Grandmasters to learn from the rest, and the youngsters to get inspired by the senior players.”
And this is not lost on the kids. Aravindh anna, one of the senior kids at the academy and bronze medallist at the world youth championships this year, explains that relationship with his mentor.
“I have had other personal coaches before moving to Chennai but the specialty with Ramesh sir is how friendly he is with all of us. I share all my problems with him, and he never stops motivating me. He trains us in groups at the academy and that has given me the chance to play frequently against some of the best players in the country – Sethuraman anna, Pragga, and sir himself. That’s how my confidence improves,” says Aravindh.
Namrata Deshmukh, mother of Divya – the top-ranked U-12 female player in the world – sums it up perfectly.
“My daughter doesn’t want to go back home! We come to Chennai whenever we get a chance, mostly once a month. Ramesh sir has arranged an apartment for us close by and we stay there,” says Namrata, who becomes the de facto in-charge of the academy when Ramesh steps out to run an errand. “There been an immense change in her since she joined, because at Chess Gurukul it’s not just about teaching chess. My daughter grows as an individual. She learns in groups, she’s taught how to grow mentally, and she constantly improves her game. As a parent, I can’t ask for more.”