Chess Gurukul is hardly the most visible establishment on Vaidyaraman Street in T Nagar. There are no signposts announcing its existence among the handful of political party offices that dot the street, no billboards celebrating the achievements of its illustrious students. Strange, for if one of your wards had just become the U-18 world champion, you’d be forgiven for wanting to shout from the rooftops. But then, RB Ramesh doesn’t come across as the self-promoting type.
His academy is as unassuming as the Grandmaster himself. Located on the first floor of a residential apartment, there is everything that its students need and not much more. On the tables are roll-up vinyl chess mats with the pieces, all in formation, waiting for the battle to begin, while a nearby shelf is packed with books about the game. Indeed, the only indication of the academy’s significance to the larger world is a notice board nearby with newspaper articles about its students pinned on it. You’d expect a more extravagant setting for a revolution.
Make no mistake, for what Chess Gurukul is unleashing is a revolution. The academy, run by Ramesh and his wife WGM Aarthie Ramaswamy, first shot into the limelight in 2013 through Aravindh Chithambaram’s exploits at the Chennai Grandmaster International Open Chess tournament held on the sidelines of the Viswanathan Anand-Magnus Carlsen World Championship match in Chennai. Aravindh, then a 14-year-old FIDE Master, had waded into a field full of GMs and IMs as the 53rd strongest participant and emerged with the trophy. A year later, he was a GM at 15. But of course, one swallow, no matter how impressive it is, does not make a summer.
Then came R Praggnanandhaa and everyone in the chess fraternity had their eyes trained on that nondescript flat on Vaidyaraman Street. In 2016, the boy that Ramesh affectionately calls Pragg, became the world’s youngest IM at 10 years and nine months. A couple of years later, at 12 years, 10 months and 13 days, he would become the second-youngest GM and youngest-ever India to attain the title (at the time). Ramesh, it seemed, had stumbled upon a formula to create astonishingly-young Grandmasters.
That fine work has continued unabated since, for, at the recent World U-18 Championships, Ramesh’s academy accounted for three of India’s seven medals. That included the only gold — Praggnanandhaa finished as the best U-18 player in the world (at 14!) — while Divya Deshmukh and Rakshitta Ravi won a silver and a bronze.
Back at the academy, as Ramesh hands out problems to solve to the bunch of beginners gathered around him, one can’t help but wonder how many future GMs are in there. But the more serious players are huddled in the next room. Among them, his feet up on a chair across the table and his eyes fixed on a laptop screen is the newly-crowned junior world champion.
“I’ve read in many places,” says Ramesh, “that to become a professional, to become very good at something, you have to put in at least 10,000 hours of training in that field. If you say somebody is practising chess for three hours every day, then it takes around 10 years. So, if somebody starts to play chess at the age of eight, you can realistically become a GM at the age of 18. This was widely accepted to be the right process.
“But when I started working with young children, I wondered if there was a way to accelerate this process. I wondered if we’ve all been thinking incorrectly about the whole learning process. Maybe it can all be learnt quickly if their priorities are set right, if things are taught the proper way.”
Praggnanandhaa is a product of Ramesh’s search for that proper way. And when he explains his method, it sounds so deceptively simple. “It’s like you’re taught algebra at eighth standard and multiplication in fourth,” he says. “I wondered if there was a way to teach algebra in fourth grade and multiplication in the first grade. Can we shorten the whole process? So with very young children, I tried to make them do very difficult things.”
Ramesh claims that it worked with almost every one of his wards, but then it has evidently worked better for Praggnanandhaa. It was obvious early on to Ramesh that the boy had qualities and a head that fitted on someone much older. He narrates a story about a nine-year-old, preparing to go to an international tournament, where he would eventually get his first IM norm. Satisfied with his preparation, the teacher, in a bid to encourage the ward, told him to not limit himself to an IM norm and that he was good enough for a GM norm. Praggnanandhaa, who until then, had been taught to enjoy the learning process and not the result, appeared confused. ‘I thought you did not want me to play for these things’, he asked.
“At that age, he had already got the message,” remembers Ramesh. “For many, it’s like they are a bird in water. They have to learn swimming the hard way. For him, it’s like a fish in water.”And for all the age-group accolades that Praggnanandhaa has brought in so far, his biggest contribution has perhaps been in pushing the bar. “I don’t remember the exact details, but I read somewhere that in the 1940s or 50s, everyone thought that in long jump, you couldn’t jump beyond a certain mark,” says Ramesh.
“All the world records were less than that. Suddenly somebody exceeded that. Then, within six months, three other guys broke it. So I think, for the mind, what it believes, it will be true. The limitations are usually set by ourselves.”
“A similar thing has happened in chess. Pragg showed the way — he became an IM at the age of 10 and shocked the chess community. Once one child has shown the way, others are realising that this is possible for them as well.”A year after Praggnanandhaa became GM, another Tamil Nadu boy D Gukesh pushed the bar up even more, achieving the title at 12 years, seven months and 17 days. The floodgates had opened.
Dealing with fame
Praggnanandhaa’s story so far has been well documented. The blaze of publicity that followed, after he became the youngest IM ever, did a good job of building up the origin story — how, as a three-year-old, he picked the game up from his elder sister WGM R Vaishali (who at 18 recently picked up her first GM norm), how his mother accompanies him to events because of the limitations his father has to overcome due to a childhood polio attack and how none other than Viswanathan Anand once described him as the real deal. Perhaps, over the last few years, no Indian chess player bar Anand himself has had so much spoken and written about him.
But for a pre-teen kid, even one as precocious as Praggnanandhaa, a sudden burst of fame and pressure was a lot to grapple with. “He was away from the limelight and could focus on his job,” Ramesh says. “But suddenly, after he became an IM, there were a lot of interviews where everyone was asking him what his chances of becoming the youngest GM were. So, now he has to change his focus. From learning and performing, he has to think about whether he can meet expectations. So his priorities got a little bit confused and we tried to refocus him.”
From enjoying the learning process, Praggnanandhaa suddenly had results to worry about. He had become an IM at 10 and had a lot of time to rewrite Sergey Karjakin’s record as the world’s youngest-ever GM. His academy-mate Aravindh had achieved all his GM norms in the space of six months. So why not? An entire country waited with bated breath. And it showed in his game. “At that point, he became defensive, overcautious. He started choosing openings that were not very risky, with which he can draw with higher-ranked players. With that, his style also started evolving,” Ramesh says.
Praggnanandhaa himself recalls this period as ‘tiring’. “I was playing a lot of tournaments to finish my GM title but I was very tired at that point. When I couldn’t break that record, I just stopped for a month.” That release of pressure was evident — he became a GM over the next couple of months.
Ramesh, too, saw the achievement of norms and the relaxation of scrutiny as a chance for course correction. “Once he completed his norms, he took a break from playing continuously and I told him what I felt. We started adding more openings to his repertoire. Now there is no immediate target for him to achieve. He is focussing more on the things that he should be doing.”
His first engagement after becoming a GM was at Leon Masters in Spain where he found himself facing defending champion and current World No 12 Wesley So (who last week crushed Magnus Carlsen to become the first FIDE World Fischer Random Chess champion) in a Blitz tie. He stunned So in the first game before losing the four-game tie 1.5-2.5. When So was asked what he thought of his young rival, he did not hold back.“I think my opponent is a genius.”