How and when did you decide to become a coach?
In 1998 I received an invitation from the Indian Chess Federation to coach the U20 teams at the Asian Junior Championship. I was 22 at the time, not much older than the players. Both boys and girls have won gold medals, but not because of my training. It was just that they were very strong players. That was my first contact with coaching. Then I got the opportunity to work with Aarthi Ramaswamy, who won the U18 World Cup the following year. It gave me a lot of confidence that I could be a good coach from a young age. More and more players came to me to help them. Most of the players I’ve worked with have improved rapidly in a very short period of time. That’s when I realized I could be a better coach than a player.
Was coaching innate for you or did it take a lot of hard work to become a good coach?
It’s a bit of both. Talent alone does not make up for everything. You have to study with a lot of effort. This is a crucial part of progress. I’ve worked really hard to be and become a good coach. I used to take classes from 4am to 9pm. Working 14-15 hours a day was a normal routine for almost 10 years. So there was a lot of hard work involved.
Which personalities have inspired you as a coach?
The famous Russian coach Mark Dvoretsky inspired me a lot. As a player, I had read his books on chess training, which 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 when these books can make such a difference to a wide audience, the role of a trainer is something very crucial.
Mark Dvoretsky, 12/9/1947 to 09/26/2016 | Photo: Amruta Mokal
With the advent of chess software, engines and the internet, how important is the role of a coach?
I think it’s more relevant now than it used to be. This is because everyone used to learn for themselves. So whoever learned better became a better player. But now everyone has access to computers and the internet. Everyone has good analysis tools in the form of engines and also access to information in the form of databases and books.
However, it also means that there is too much information. Players simply cannot process all of this information on their own. It is therefore very important to sift through this vast amount of information and find out what is really relevant to this person. This is where coaches can step in. They can point the direction and locate areas where players need to work.
Additionally, players are under tremendous pressure these days due to intense competition. Even very young children as young as eight or nine are under tremendous pressure. This was not the case before. They want to be world champions in different age groups. With this pressure they are already starting their careers. The role of the coach is therefore very important to teach them how to bypass that pressure and focus on their improvement.
Does today’s coaching involve more than just teaching chess techniques?
Today, the role of coaches is not limited to chess, but also focuses on aspects such as psychology, dealing with various challenges on and off the board, and ensuring that players develop good habits off the board as well.
Nowadays many children have access to the internet. Since most of the top tournaments in Europe or USA take place in India at night, they develop the habit of going to bed very late, waking up very late, skipping breakfast and so on. These are very unhealthy habits as a person and even more so as a player. My role also includes teaching them how to avoid bad habits, including addiction to video games, TV series, etc. These things can easily make them bad players and don’t help them learn effectively.
Is it difficult to inspire children while instilling discipline?
On the contrary, it is very difficult to discipline someone who is older as they tend to be more resistant to change. Young children are very tolerant of change and new ways of looking at things. It’s easier to convince a child than an adult. We underestimate little children. We assume they won’t understand these things, but when they’re told to be disciplined, they have to work hard, and they do that very well. I generally tell my students not to gamble for incentives. My focus is that they become very strong players. As soon as they become strong, the so-called incentives come along automatically.
What is the difference between a coach and a second?
The role of a second is mainly limited to coming up with new and effective opening ideas that can be used by the player concerned and also doing a lot of analysis with engines. It’s not necessarily about changing a player’s thought process. On the other hand, a trainer or coach is more personally involved in the development of the players. We look at all aspects on and off the board. I find coaching more intensive.
What are the secrets to becoming a good coach?
You have to be very, very passionate and enjoy teaching. It should not be viewed solely as a profession or a means of livelihood. A coach has to go through both the happy and the difficult moments that the player goes through. He or she has to live through all the emotions, empathize with the players and guide them in the right way. It’s a very intense process. If you are not emotionally invested, it is difficult to become a good coach.
As India B coach at the Olympiad, did you have any emotional ups and downs during the event?
Of course. There were players who got very upset after losing, which is very natural. We had team meetings and some individual sessions with the players. I stressed from the beginning that it is very important that everyone is ready to play until the last round. And that nobody should get into bad shape or a bad mood.
Ivan Sokolov, coach of Uzbekistan (background) and RB Ramesh during the crucial game Uzbekistan vs India 2 at Chennai 2022 Chess Olympiad | Photo: Lennart Ootes
How has coaching developed since you started in 1998?
There will always be all kinds of trainers. There will be some very strong players training to make extra money but they are not very dedicated. Sometimes strong players don’t necessarily make good coaches because they’re good at playing, but not good at explaining things or empathizing with what others are going through. So there will always be different types of trainers, those who are efficient and effective and those who don’t invest time in their own growth as a trainer. In the past, as a grand master, employment 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 don’t have guaranteed opportunities to make a good living from chess. This drives many young players, already between 20 and 23, to become coaches. We’re seeing a new generation of young grandmasters becoming coaches, which in a way is very good. When they see training not just as a way of making money but as a passion and keep evolving, becoming better coaches and producing champions for the country, that’s fantastic.
What do you think of your student Praggnanandhaa’s recent victory over world champion Magnus Carlsen in a rapid tournament?
I don’t want to put too much emphasis on individual game results. Any player is capable of beating anyone on any given day, but doing it consistently is key. Magnus is extremely strong in all formats of the game. So defeating Magnus is commendable, albeit in a quick format. But Pragg’s goal, I believe, is to become world champion in the standard time control format. He must learn the lessons of those experiences and apply them to standard timing as well.
Praggnanandhaa | Photo: ChessBase India
He needs to get his rating up to 2750 plus very soon. Only then will he get the chance to play consistently with the top guys. He has to be patient and use every opportunity to play in standard time control, win as many games as possible and improve his rating quickly. but at the same time don’t compromise to do your best and become a stronger player in the process.
I think that’s more important. Nowadays. Many players have shown that it is possible to consistently beat 2600+ players if you are a strong player. But the real challenge is consistently beating 2700 and 2750 plus players. Whoever succeeds becomes world champion.
Thanks very much!