Talent, in sports, can aid only in realising part of the potential. No doubt, it opens new doors and helps one be recognised as a potential champion. Thereafter, it takes sustained hard work to break new ground. This is where an able teacher or mentor could play a key role.
When one looks at India’s chess firmament, two stars - R. Praggnanandhaa and his elder sister R. Vaishali - shine brighter than most. No doubt, they are immensely talented. They have an inborn craving for working tirelessly. But without the right coach, they could have easily lost direction.
Luckily, these siblings found R. B. Ramesh, a Grandmaster who is undoubtedly the best coach in the country. Since 2014, these talents and their teacher have provided the nation’s chess lovers plenty to cheer about.
Praggnanandhaa is busy hitting headlines, especially after twice beating World No. 1 Magnus Carlsen in online competitions. Vaishali has patiently collected her second Grandmaster norm and moved to the third spot - after K. Humpy and D. Harika - in India’s women rankings.
Interestingly, the Vaishali-Praggnanandhaa duo will also be the first sister-brother combination to represent India in the same Olympiad in July-August this year at Mahabalipuram.
Sportstar caught up with Ramesh, Vaishali and Praggnanandhaa to get up-close on their eight-year association so far.
Ramesh starts from the beginning. “Pragg and Vaishali were already well known when I started training them. I remember, there was a function of the Tamil Nadu Sports Journalists’ Association and I was to honour some prominent, upcoming chess players. During this function, their father (Ramesh) proposed this idea that I train them. I said I would be more than happy to do so. He said there would be some financial constraints and hoped it wouldn’t come in the way. I said it won’t. So, that’s how it began.”
Simple human beings
Elaborating on the early days of their association, Ramesh recalls, “The first thing that struck me was the dedication of both the children. He was a World (Under-8) boys champion and she was the World (Under-12) girls champion. So, they were already well known. I had already worked with medallists of the world youth (age-group) championship so it was not new to me. But what was refreshing was their work ethics. They were least complicated as human beings. Very simple. You could easily read them and they did not carry too much baggage. From a very young age, they were hoping to reach great heights, and even to this day, remain very hard-working. It has to be seen to be believed. So I’m very confident that they can achieve what they want to achieve.”
Vaishali remembers, “Ramesh sir was the first Grandmaster we (Vaishali and Praggnanandhaa) worked with. One of the earliest things I learnt from him was: focus on the game and not play for results. Another important thing I learnt was to forgive ourselves like we forgive our friends. When we commit a silly mistake and lose a game, we find it tough to forgive ourselves. It was very different for me to hear these words from him. Since then, I always remember these words. I am trying hard to follow, but it is not easy.”
Praggnanandhaa recalls, “After I joined Ramesh sir, in the first two-three tournaments, I lost 100 rating points. We continued to work and I did very well. Mainly, we worked on middle-game skills and calculations. That really helped me. At that time, I guess, I was much better than my age-group category players in calculations. I won lots of games because of that. During those days, I considered myself very tricky. Always looked for tactics or tricks in a given position. And somehow trick my opponent. Even today, if the position demands, it happens. One has to play according to the position.”
‘No fear, just excitement’
And how was it to play the creamy layer of world chess in your first online event?
“I was very excited to play them. Not fear but just excitement. And I played well, too. Of course, when I first saw these top 10 players in person, I was a bit scared. I would always go to their boards and watch how they played.”
How does Praggnanandhaa remember his first meeting with Magnus Carlsen?
“I saw him for the first time during the 2013 World Chess Championship title-match in Chennai where he gave a simultaneous display against 20 opponents. I lost but my sister (Vaishali) won. I was eight years old and he was trying to win the World title. Later, for the first time, I saw him play live in one of the open tournaments. It was something new for me to see one among the top players in the world play,” recalled the 16-year-old.
Recently, in one of his interviews, he was asked, ‘You beat Magnus, how do you feel about beating the world champion?’ Praggnanandhaa responded, ‘It’s just one game… and that too, a rapid game. It’s good but it’s not everything.’ And Praggnanandhaa also added, “Even if I had lost in that game, it’s still one game.”
— Ramesh on Praggnanandhaa
And, what is that one quality that Carlsen has and Praggnanandhaa wants to possess?
“He has this quality of always playing to win. I think that’s an important quality. He never gives up and he always fights till the end.”
At this stage, Ramesh makes another point. “During the pandemic, Carlsen took the initiative with the Champions Chess Tour. He played in all these online tournaments, gave authenticity and built the Tour. Until then, we were not taking online chess very seriously. We wanted to focus on standard tournaments, standard time-control, improving our standard rating and all that, but when this happened, we had to recalibrate preferences.
“The truth is, I’ve spent more time with Praggnananthaa than Vaishali. So, he understands my philosophy very well. Recently, in one of his interviews, he was asked, ‘You beat Magnus, how do you feel about beating the world champion?’ Praggnanandhaa responded, ‘It’s just one game… and that too, a rapid game. It’s good but it’s not everything.’ And Praggnanandhaa also added, “Even if I had lost in that game, it’s still one game.”
Indeed, for Praggnanandhaa and Vaishali, in varying degrees, following Ramesh’s philosophies while training equally hard, bigger results should be just around the corner. With Ramesh around, Chess Olympiad could well be the stage for these siblings to make their debut in the premier team competition even more memorable.