Legends uncovered: R.B. Ramesh (2/3)
Indian chess is growing at a fervent pace. In order to ensure that things are moving in the right direction and they continue to do so it is important that we always keep in mind the views of some of the best chess minds in our country. One of them in India's super coach GM R.B. Ramesh. In the second part of his interview he speaks about the mindset that trainers and parents must have, how to make chess more popular, why having a super tournament in India is important and the reasons for Tamil Nadu being a super power in chess.
In case you have missed it, here's the Part I of the Interview with R.B. Ramesh
In conversation with R.B. Ramesh - Part II
The interview was done during the Chennai Open 2017 when ChessBase India Hindi editor-in-chief Niklesh Jain went to Ramesh's place Anandham in Chennai. The video is shot in a very professional manner by doordarshan videographer Ashok Kumar.
Transcription of the above video
Niklesh Jain (NJ): In India these days, we see a lot of players training young kids. What would be your suggestion to them?
R.B. Ramesh (RB): Okay, first thing is that it is also equally important that the parents are also given some counseling or advice when they bring their kids to the game. Because, many times, I have seen that the parents play a negative role without knowing. They think they are encouraging their kids but, in many ways, they are harming the child’s learning process.
So, it is also important for a coach, who is working with young children, to keep parents informed and they should also be given some kind of counseling. Like prepare them for what we are trying to achieve from the child. The parents should play their part correctly. Because when the coach teaches something and the parents teach something else, the child will be confused – he will have to choose between his parents or the coach. It’s not a good situation for a child to be in. So, my suggestion is that the parents should also be taken into confidence by the coach. That is one thing.
The other thing is that results are very important because ultimately that is what gives satisfaction to the player… “I have played for so many years and I have achieved this thing”. That gives them satisfaction; for all the struggle they have gone through over the years. But if we directly go behind results, we will miss out on the learning process. The journey is more important than the destination; at least in chess. We should try to take a path where the child is very clear and he should understand that he needs to learn more. And he needs to constantly change himself – the way how he looks at the game. For example, if I see a game when I am a 1200-level-player, I will look at it in a certain way; and when I am a 1600-level-player, I look at it differently, and if I am a 2200-level-player, the same game gives a different meaning to me.
So, we have to let the child know that he has to keep changing his perceptions about the game: what is important, what isn’t. And in the long run, what is important is being sincere when they try to learn the game, being sincere when they go out and play. I’m using the word sincere because it is not easy to be sincere. All the time, I see kids are trying to learn things which they feel will help them win tournaments or increase their rating in the next tournament they play. So they children also, most of the times, are playing for results. And when we try to teach them, let’s say, some endgame, they feel, “I’m not going to play too many endgames in my next tournament, so why should I learn them? Why is it important for me?” And in such cases, some kids may not show interest.
But the really talented ones, the really sincere ones – no matter what we teach – realize that they have to learn everything. And there is so much to learn from the game that we have to start these things when they are young. So many of the things we teach may not be helpful immediately, but we still have to do those things. And we can do those things only if you’re not running behind immediate results.
NJ: Sir, how would you rate the work of All India Chess Federation over the years to develop chess in India?
RB: Okay, it’s a political question, so I will be very diplomatic. No, but to be honest, the AICF has done a very creditable job. In Chennai, we have a very long history with chess starting from IM Manuel Aaron, who was the first International Master from India; and then subsequently, we had Anand. So we have a very long history in Tamil Nadu and Chennai chess. The AICF also has been doing a lot of work.
We have had many international tournaments. The number of international events happening in India is increasing. As I was saying earlier, we had only the Goodricke Open at Calcutta in those years. But now we have the Chennai Open, the Mumbai Open, the Orissa Open, the Kolkatta Open, the Delhi Open, and so on. So, more states are coming up to conduct international open tournaments in India.
And the other good thing is that they are now selecting the Indian Olympiad team based on rating – four of the players are selected by rating and the national champion is given the entry for representing India. Probably they should consider giving 75 Elo point advantage to someone who plays in the Nationals. So that is one area probably where some improvement can be made. And as per my wish list – which I’ve published on Facebook some time back – some of the points I would like to see in India is probably an Indian Chess League. This way we can attract more private sponsors to the game. And when private sponsors come, obviously, more money is going to come into the game.
And these days it is not easy for players to get a job. This is a big problem that the current generation is facing. And this is going to get worse in the future. Earlier, when I was young, even before I became an international master, I got a job at the Indian Bank. But nowadays, if you are an International Master – or even if you become a grandmaster – there’s no guarantee that you will get a good job. Because there are already like 40-45 players who are grandmasters in the country and 80-90 are International Masters. And there are not as many companies in India who are giving a job for chess. It is mostly restricted to oil companies, LIC, Airport Authority, Air India and Railways. Apart from these companies, others are not willing to enter into the sports arena by giving employment. And already, in the oil sector, the top players are there; and they’re going to be there for another 20-30 years at least. This is going to create problems for the future generation. When they become grandmasters, how are they going to make a living?
The only alternative I see is that by playing in tournaments, they should be able to make money. That is very important to sustain the interest of the public in the game. If the parents see that their son is not going to get a job, if the future generation sees that someone is a good player but he doesn’t have a job; they’d get scared and when they reach 10th or 12th standard, they are going to move away from the game. They might go for some professional course so they can get a job. So this is a very serious problem that I see. To some extent we can overcome this by ensuring that as a player, you can keep earning money. You don’t have to win the tournament, but even if you come 10th or 15th in a very strong tournament, you’ll still be able to make decent money. And there should be some appearance fee for the grandmasters at least.
This is only possible if we can get private sponsors. And, I think, the only way to get them into the game is through the Indian Chess League. We had this Maharashtra Chess League for four years and, I believe, they are spending like 15 lakhs every year on the players. The auction fee of the players is roughly 15 Lakhs per year. So in four years, the players have got like 60 lakhs. And it’s not everyone; just a few players. And it’s quite decent money. If there can be an Indian League, the amount could become higher. So we can cover more players and they will be making more money. That is important if we want to sustain the interest of the future generation in chess. Otherwise, we will see more drop-outs.
NJ: What is the reason that we have only 5 Indian players in the top 100? And in the top 50, we have only 2.
RB: If we see that way, we can find fault with many things. So, we should not look at the current position and judge things. We have to see from where we came or where we started and where we are now. That is one way to judge things. And the other thing is, from here, do we have the potential to go up. These two things we have to see. If 10 years ago or 20 years ago, we were in the same situation like now, then we have to worry. Because then we would have made no progress. And if we feel that in future also, we are going to remain like this, that there’s not much change that’s going to happen, then we need to worry.
But on both counts I see a lot of hope. Like from the past, we have 40-45 Grandmasters now. The game is becoming much younger. You’re seeing young talents who are coming up very fast and making the country proud. For example, now we have Praggnanandhaa, Nihal Sarin… there are many other kids. So, more young kids are coming up. It shows that we have a system in place where young talents are continuously coming up. That is one good thing. And the other good thing is that many of these kids, nowadays, are not getting stuck after becoming a GM.
In my generation, becoming GM was very difficult. And if you become a GM, usually, we didn’t progress beyond that. We’d be stuck between 2480 or 2490 or 2510 or something like that. And we’d get stuck at that level, as had happened in my own case. But nowadays, we have more opportunities. More Indian players are playing abroad. They’re crossing 2600 at quite a young age. So, I see that a lot of good things are happening. We should not judge by what situation we have now.
NJ: So it’s all about opportunity? Do you think having a super grandmaster tournament in India can help?
RB: Yes, of course. Because this is one of the problems when I go with the Indian team – including Harikrishna, Ganguly, Adhiban, Sethuraman, Vidit Gujrathi, I can name everyone – they have the same problem. If you’re rated above 2750, you can get invitations for closed tournaments. Now Harikrishna is above 2750, so he is getting invitations from many top level tournaments.
But if you’re below 2700 or between 2600 and 2700, you’re neither a very strong player – like above 2700 – nor a too weak player – like a below 2600 player. So you are caught in the middle. You can’t play in open tournaments because you’ll be the top seed or second seed. And you can’t play in closed tournaments because you will not get invitations. This is a big problem. So, if India can organize at least three closed tournaments, it will be a boost for players rated between 2500 and 2700. They will be able to make it to the 2700 mark much faster. So, I think three or four closed tournaments in India is absolutely necessary.
NJ: Do you think the idea of making the National Challengers unrated is a good one? (Just a few days ago National Challengers was made rated again, but this interview was done before that!)
RB: No, personally I don’t like that idea because in one way it is insulting for the players. I definitely would not like to play in an unrated tournament. If I am going to play for money, it’s a different story. But most players are not ruthlessly playing for money alone. They want to make progress. They want to increase their rating and go to the next level. So I hope that the National Challengers becomes a rated tournament again. Because we should not think that players are afraid of losing their rating or that is the only criteria they’re not playing in the National Challengers. That is not a fair assessment of why players are not playing there. There are many ideas already. There are many ideas about how the National Challengers and the National A need to be held. I hope the necessary changes will be made in the future.
NJ: Tamil Nadu is the power house of Indian chess. What according to you is the reason behind this?
RB: One thing is that we have a long history. That is one of the main reasons. As I mentioned, Manuel Aaron was the first International Master and Anand came from Chennai. So, it was easy to popularize the game in Tamil Nadu. Because we already had a few star players. Every game needs some heroes to popularize the game. Tamil Nadu had the advantage of having some heroes which the next generation can look up to.
And the other thing is that we have a strong federation. We had the Tamil Nadu Chess Association which was organizing many open tournaments, rated tournaments within Tamil Nadu. When I was young, there was Karur Open, the SPIC Open… so many open FIDE rated tournaments were held in Tamil Nadu, even in my time. I think that was the main reason. When you can play more tournaments, in good quality tournaments, I think it’s easier to improve fast. The other reason is that in the last twenty years, we’ve had many chess academies coming up. Many of the former players have become coaches. That is also helping. So we have many academies – availability of coaches is there – and continuous supply of tournaments.
NJ: Do you think language played a big role in chess development in our country? Language in the sense that like in Hindi areas, they usually don’t have the material. And they are also not too good in English.
RB: Yeah, probably. I had not thought about this seriously. But now that you say, it makes some sense. In Tamil Nadu, most of the kids go to English speaking schools. So, it’s easy to read chess books. But probably if that is not the case in north-India and in many pockets, if they don’t have English medium schools and chess material is available only in English language… that could be a reason. But my view is, there will always be challenges. India is not rich like America or Europe. So we should try to look at these things as challenges and not problems which cannot be solved.
For example, I was working with one player, Debashis Das, when he was young, like 11 years old. When we started working, he didn’t speak English and I cannot speak Hindi – but I can understand a little bit of Hindi. So when they approached me to train, I told them language is going to be a problem. I cannot speak in Hindi to him and he doesn’t understand English. So how do I teach him? They said, “He will learn English. You teach him, he’s a good learner. He will learn”. Initially, I was very apprehensive. But when we started working, I talked in English to him and he started learning English to understand the classes better. And he became very good in English and he learned. So what I am trying to say is, our handicaps should not be reasons to hold us back. We should just find ways to work on them. And that will actually make us tougher.
NJ: Why are the top Tamil Nadu players or even the top Indian players not playing in Indian open tournaments like Chennai Open or the Delhi Open?
RB: I have spoken about this with the players themselves. I have been asking them what they need to make them play in India more, and I have had this honest discussion with them. And one thing I learned is that they’re very happy with the prize money offered. Because when they play in open tournament in Spain, the prize money offered is not as high as the money offered in the Delhi Open or the Chennai Open or the Orissa Open or the Mumbai Open. So the Indian Open tournaments are already offering a good prize fund. That is not why they avoid playing in India.
So I asked them what other reasons they have. They are also happy with the pocket money or the appearance fee. The appearance fee that Grandmasters get in India is usually a little more than what they get in Europe. So appearance fee is also not an issue. Clearly, it is not the money which is holding the Indian players back from playing in India.
The main reason I think is the conditions – the playing conditions, the playing hall. Sometimes the hall can be too crowded, that’s got to be one reason. The other reason is that the number of entries is huge. We have a huge population in India and in many tournaments, all the players play in the open section of the tournament. So a 2600 may have to play with a 1600 or a 1700. Such situations can arise; and it may not be for one game. It may be that for three or four games, they have to play with 2100 or 2200 type of rated players. So if we can have some type of restrictions, different categories… maybe like 2200 and above or 2300 and above can be one category. Something like in the Aeroflot Open; they have different categories. One category is for absolutely 2550+, and the other category for 2300 to 2550; another category for below 2300… something like that. I’m not saying we have to follow exactly follow that system, but according to the needs of our country, we have to devise a system where we can segregate players into different categories.
But in this, there is a problem – the upcoming lower rated players would like to play with higher rated players. So if you’re going to say that below 2200 is going to be a different category, someone who is 2150 cannot play with a 2300 or a 2400. He has to be satisfied with 2200 players. So now basically, we have to choose on where we are going to make some compromise. Of course there has to be a compromise because you can’t have an ideal situation with a huge population like ours. So whose needs are we going to take care of, is important.
In my opinion, someone who is young and upcoming can increase 100 or 125 points in one tournament. So next year he will be eligible to play in the higher category. This year alone, he may have to play in below-2200. But if he does well by next time, he will be there in the higher category. But for someone who is 2550 or 2650, it’s not easy to increase their rating. So next year they are not going to be 2750. It’s not going to be easy for them. So I think we need to give more importance to the higher rated players.
So my suggestion would be to have different rating restrictions. Thereby we don’t let too many lower rated players play in the group where we have higher rated players. If this change can be made, I think more Indian top players will be able to play. And I think India badly needs that. Because almost, like top 20 Indian players, don’t play in India at all. Indian players don’t get to see them at all. That’s a very sad thing and something needs to be done in this area.
A special thanks to Aditya Pai who transcribed the entire interview.
This is a three-part interview. Part III will be released shortly.