Talent in sport can only help to realize part of the potential. Undoubtedly, it opens new doors and helps to be recognized as a potential champion. After that, it takes sustained hard work to break new ground. This is where a capable teacher or mentor could play a key role.
When looking at India’s chess sky, two stars – R. Praggnanandhaa and his older sister R. Vaishali – shine brighter than most. No doubt they are immensely talented. You have an innate desire to work tirelessly. But without the right coach, they could easily have lost direction.
Fortunately, these siblings found RB Ramesh, a grandmaster who is undoubtedly the best coach in the country. Since 2014, these talents and their teacher have given the nation’s chess lovers plenty to cheer about.
Praggnanandhaa has been busy making headlines, especially after twice beating world No. 1 Magnus Carlsen in online competitions. Vaishali has patiently accumulated her second grandmaster norm and has moved up to third place – behind K. Humpy and D. Harika – in India’s women’s rankings.
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Interestingly, the Vaishali-Praggnanandhaa duo will also be the first sister-brother combination to represent India at the same Olympiad in Mahabalipuram in July-August this year.
sports star caught up with Ramesh, Vaishali and Praggnanandhaa to witness their eight years of collaboration up close.
Ramesh starts over. “Pragg and Vaishali were already well known when I started training them. I remember there was an event organized by the Tamil Nadu Sports Journalists’ Association and I was to honor some prominent up and coming chess players. During this function her father (Ramesh) suggested this idea that I train her. I said I would like to do that. He said there would be some financial constraints and hoped that wouldn’t get in the way. I said it won’t. So that’s how it started.”
Regarding the early days of their union, Ramesh recalls, “The first thing that struck me was the devotion between the two children. He was World Champion (U8) in boys and she was World Champion (U12) in girls. So you were already known. I had worked with medalists at the World Youth (age group) Championships before, so it wasn’t new to me. But what was refreshing was their work ethic. As humans, they were the least complicated. Very easy. They were easy to read and they didn’t carry too much baggage. From a young age they hoped to reach great heights and remain very hardworking to this day. You have to see it to believe it. So I’m very confident that they can achieve what they want to achieve.”
Great Duo: The Vaishali-Praggnanandhaa duo will be the first brother-sister combination to represent India at the same Olympiad in Mahabalipuram in July-August this year. | Credit: SHIV KUMAR PUSHPAKAR
Vaishali recalls: “Ramesh Sir was the first Grandmaster that we (Vaishali and Praggnanandhaa) worked with. One of the first things I learned from him was: focus on the game and not on results. Another important thing I learned was to forgive ourselves as we forgive our friends. When we make a stupid mistake and lose a game, it’s hard for us to forgive ourselves. It was something very different for me to hear those words from him. Ever since then I have always remembered those words. I’m trying very hard to follow, but it’s not easy.”
Praggnanandhaa recalls: “After I joined Ramesh sir, I lost 100 rating points in the first two to three tournaments. We kept working and I did very well. We mainly worked on skills and calculations in the middle game. That really helped me. At that time I was probably mathematically much better than my age group players. I won a lot of games because of that. In those days I thought I was very difficult. Always looking for tactics or tricks in a certain position. And somehow trick my opponent. Even today, when the position requires it, it happens. You have to play according to the position.”
“No Fear, Just Excitement”
And how was it playing the creamy level of world chess in your first online event?
“I was very excited to play her. No fear, 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 used to go to their boards and watch them play.”
How does Praggnanandhaa remember his first meeting with Magnus Carlsen?
Powerful opponent: Magnus Carlsen played simultaneously against some of the young chess players of Tamil Nadu at MOP Vaishnav College in Chennai in August 2013. Carlsen had visited the city to watch the preparations for the World Chess Championship match against Viswanathan Anand later that year. Vaishali, then 12, was one of four players to defeat Carlsen. | Photo credit: R.RAGU
“I saw him for the first time during the 2013 World Chess Championship match in Chennai, where he played against 20 opponents at the same time. I lost but my sister (Vaishali) won. I was eight years old and he was trying to win the world title. Later I saw him play live for the first time at one of the open tournaments. It was something new for me to see one of the best players in the world play,” recalls 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 replied, “It’s just a game… and a quick game at that. It’s good, but it’s not everything.” And Praggnanandhaa added: “Even if I lost that game, it’s still a game.”
— Ramesh on Praggnanandhaa
And what is that one quality that Carlsen has that 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 always fights to the end.”
At this point, 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 didn’t take online chess very seriously. We wanted to focus on standard tournaments, standard timing, improving our standard rating and all that, but when that happened we had to recalibrate our settings.
“The truth is that I’ve spent more time with Praggnananthaa than with 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 replied, “It’s just a game… and a quick game at that. It’s good, but it’s not everything.” And Praggnanandhaa added: “Even if I lost that game, it’s still a game.”
Indeed, for Praggnanandhaa and Vaishali to varying degrees, if they follow Ramesh’s philosophies while training equally hard, greater results should be right around the corner. With Ramesh around, the Chess Olympiad could well be the stage for these siblings to make their debut in the premier team competition even more memorable.