I hope Pragg can be a world champ in three to five years: Coach Ramesh
In an in-depth interview with this daily, coach speaks about chess prodigy Praggnanandhaa's discipline, his ongoing World Cup journey and his future goals
CHENNAI: Chess Gurukul is based out of a two-bedroom apartment in T Nagar. For an academy that has produced hundreds of age group chess champions, including a chess prodigy called R Praggnanandhaa, its existence is almost lost in the multitude of buildings in the vicinity. There's nothing that cries for attention. The academy is on the first floor and, like all places that are sacred, one has to take off the footwear before entering.
Coach RB Ramesh ushered us in. There was a sense of pride in his voice whenever he spoke about his ward R Praggnanandhaa. The World Cup has been one of those gratifying moments and in fact, he revealed during the conversation, they were not expecting it to go this far. But like he says "Pragg is almost playing perfect chess". The coach threw some light into what makes Pragg so special and how they were planning to go about at the World Cup in Baku. Excerpts from an interaction:
You want Pragg to be independent. Can a chess player be independent at the age of 16 or 17 or does it take a lot of effort?
It takes a tremendous amount of effort. That's why most people are not able to do this. It happened in 2021 when Pragg was playing in Tata Steel Masters, one of the strongest annual events in the world. Even Pragg was invited and I accompanied him. We were supposed to stay in the same room. He was like 15 or 16. And I got Covid, the day I reached and I was quarantined in a different room and he was forced to stay alone. He eats vegetarian food and it's not easily accessible. Usually we cook and eat. So he had to learn cooking on his own and commute to the playing hall.It was the first time he was doing it and it's happening in the middle of a major event. So this adaptation, I felt, could affect his performance, but he coped very well. We had Zoom calls or whatsapp calls to guide him. But he handled the pressure. I thought this is the direction we should take because I'm also growing old and cannot be with him forever.I kept telling him, you have to follow a strict routine. It's very easy to maybe just watch some series or play some video games and then you feel 'OK, some more time, some more time and then it's two o'clock'. It can easily happen to a teenager. But he has the willpower. All this discipline, not skipping breakfast, having lunch on time. The discipline a player shows outside of chess, I think shapes the decisions they take on the board as well.
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If you notice one thing about these youngsters, I believe, at least I know Pragg. And we had discussed earlier when he came to me. We decided that we should stay away from movies, serials and the internet. Use the internet only for chess purposes and learning purposes, not for socialising and so on. And you have to kind of dedicate yourself to chess, which was very easy for Pragg because he knew he is very talented and he knew he's hopefully going to be a world champion. That was his dream from a very young age. And he knew that if he gets into all this mess, then he can say goodbye to his chess aspirations. So he has had that willpower and discipline to keep away from all this.Pragg doesn't have any video games or Netflix on his mobile phone. It's very easy for him to download it. It will hardly take a minute. But he has the willpower to stay away. And this is very important for the other young aspiring chess players. That's why I'm mentioning this.It's extremely important. It's that the children you are seeing at the top are doing well. They have learnt self-discipline, self control over all these temptations. We have to stay away from this. I would strongly urge this for all the children out there. When you're talking about youngsters, they are doing well.
Playing Fabiano Caruana, one of the highest-rated players?
For normal players, this does matter. One of the common problems we see as trainers among young children is the young players are very scared to play with lower-rated players. Now, a lower-rated player means you can say it's like a strong player is scared of playing a weaker player. This doesn't make sense logically. But this is very common in chess. It's simply because they are thinking like if I lose to this player, I will lose a lot of rating points. When you lose to a lower-rated player, you lose a lot of rating points. And when you lose to a higher-rated player, you don't lose much.So this plays a big impact in their minds. And they're always thinking like, what if I lose to this guy, even before they play or while they're playing? So this is very unhealthy because in a sport, you should not think too much about what should not happen. Rather, you should focus on what should be happening and what, how you can contribute to it. So the young players are playing not to lose rather than to win. And this should not be the ideal case.It's very important that players don't pay too much attention to the rating, their own rating or their opponent rating. And the rating is also simply a reflection of what has happened in the past. So I tell my students not to associate themselves with the rating.It is very important to see the current rating as just a number. It is like you are going from one station to the other and there are many small stations along the way. But you know, like this is a temporary pass and you are generally going to go forward. So it's very important not to associate with their current rating. But believe their strength is much higher and that through their good effort and hard work and the learning that happens due to a result, they grow stronger and their ratings will get better.Pragg will hardly pay any attention to Cara's rating. I'm sure about this. But he knows Caruana is a very strong player who has played in the World Championship against Magnus quite well, extremely strong player. But how I think Pragg will look at this would be like a fantastic experience to play against a good player. We see it as any opportunity to play with a stronger player. We see it as a kind of a boon or a blessing. So that's how we learn.
Pragg is used to winning. So how difficult is it for you to motivate him or to, you know, teach him about accepting losses?
It is like you need to feed someone only when he's hungry. When the stomach is full, you don't need to feed him. Generally how people look is like win, draw, loss (hand gestures vertical movement). How I tell my students is like we see winning, draw, losing, winning something like this (horizontal movement: lateral). It's like vanilla, strawberry chocolate, flavours. They are just three different experiences. And I tell my students like till 'you become a world champion, you're always a student'. Learning is the priority.And it means we still don't know so many things like in Tamil, there is a saying which means what we know is like fistful of sand, how much sand we can hold in one hand, and what we don't know is like the size of the universe and they have to evolve and you should not be rigid like I know everything and I'm doing everything perfectly. We should never feel that way. There is always a scope for improvement. So this keeps him always on his toes.So he's playing tournaments largely to learn and the results are just a consequence of how he is playing.Losses do not affect Pragg in the same way as it does others. So for us, even from the last game, we can learn something good and grow in the process. And that's how we try to look at losses. So it doesn't hurt us so much as it does others. And he's quite good at this, accepting losses or learning from the losses, he can accept losses very gracefully and he will be sad. He will be disappointed for some time. That's a very natural reaction, but he wouldn't judge himself too harshly.
Magnus Carlsen was saying while you were coaching in Norway, in his academy, you used to tell the students "Be like Pragg". What is to be like Pragg?
It was about his qualities and not achievements. When I was talking to the children in the Nordic countries, considering the scene, I was asking like, are you all happy with the effort you put in? And do you think you have done enough for your growth in chess? And every single one of them said 'no', I took a picture also. So I said, like, please raise your hand, everyone in the room raised their hand.And I asked, 'who is stopping you? Is it the society or parents or coaches or anyone in your family or friends?' They said 'no one, it's us'. I asked, 'why'?
And they said, 'like we have other priorities, we have other commitments'. So, in the West, teenagers.... I wouldn't call it independent. Maybe lack of self control. So they give total freedom to their desires and their impulses. As a result, they have less self control. They feel like if I give in to my cravings, it's freedom. I wouldn't call it that. It's a lack of self control I would say. So I tried to explain this to them and I gave Pragg’s example. He can easily play video games. He can have friends, can socialise a lot; he can go partying and all. But he consciously avoids them because that's the price he's paying for becoming a better chess player and becoming a better chess player makes him more happy than all these other things combined. So it is in this sense I said, 'be like Pragg'.
How long will it take for Pragg to be a world champion? Is there any specific target you have fixed, both of you, or it's just a natural process you are waiting for?
We cannot wait for things to happen. We have to be proactive. We have to play the lead role. It's like you are in a lake where the water is not moving much and you are in a boat with the rows in your hand. If you have to row in a fast flowing river, you don't have to do anything. The water will take care in which direction and what speed you have to go. But in our career, we have to largely depend on the rowing process. So we are the active participants. So the way I see it as a professional, from my understanding of how I understand Pragg, I think he can be a world champion in another three to five years. I'm hoping it will happen in this time frame.This World World Cup has already given him an opportunity to play the Candidates, which we did not think would happen this time. So Pragg was largely focussing on the match against Hikaru (Nakamura) because that's a big hurdle. He had defeated Magnus also recently. So Hikaru could be a very dangerous opponent. So we were largely focussing on him till that point. And if we can beat Hikaru, then that will give a lot of confidence and we can meet the further opponents with more confidence because nothing like confidence. If you have great results and you feel very good about yourself, all your positive qualities will come out. And when you are dejected, upset, lacking confidence, all your negative qualities will come out. So till we could overcome Hikaru, it's like we were in a 50-50 situation, not sure about our form and all this because he's such a great player, he could have smashed us also. It wouldn't have been very surprising. I liked the way Pragg handled Hikaru, overcoming him in the tiebreak convincingly. In general, I think probably, Pragg comes close to playing perfect chess most of the time.