September 10, 2014

Captain Courageous: R B Ramesh.

He is definitely the man of the moment. One of the best coaches India has ever produced. With an ever increasing list of achievements of his students, coach R B Ramesh has added another feather to his cap. A huge feather I must say! He was the coach of the Indian team that won the Bronze medal at the Tromso Olympiad just a few days ago

The Indian players acknowledge the contribution of coach R B Ramesh in their victory!

Amidst his busy coaching schedule which take away nearly 8-10 hours of his day, I was able to catch him and have a detailed chat over the phone where he gave some wonderful insights into the Olympiad bronze journey.

Sagar Shah: What were your expectations when you left for Tromso ?
R B Ramesh: My approach is simple. I don’t want to go to a tournament with too many expectations but I also don’t want to be in a situation where we are not looking forward to something. So, I try to keep it in balance. We have to give our best and focus on that part alone. But concretely, I thought top ten would be a good finish.

SS: How well did you know the players in the team?
RBR: We knew the team well in advance and the same team has played a few months before in Iran in the Asian Nations Cup. Personally I knew four players in the team very well. I had worked with Adhiban and Sethuraman when they were young. In 2013, I had been to South Korea with Sethuraman for Asian Indoor games. With Sasikiran and Negi, I have played many tournaments and also been to many team events. So I had a fairly good idea about everyone except Lalith Babu. He is a young player and I haven’t played in a tournament since last eight years. So, whatever I knew about him was through others.

It's great news for the team when the coach bonds well with the players

SS: The board order strategy that you formulated was phenomenal. Negi on one, Sethu on two, Sasi on three, Adhiban on four and Lalith on five. How did this come about?
RBR: The Asian Nations cup that was held in Tabriz, Iran in May 2014 proved to be quite important. Over there I and Sasi were discussing that we should give the opportunity to the youngsters to take responsibility on the top board. Sasi should drop down to either two or three. Because he was the most experienced player in the team and we didn’t want all the pressure to be on his shoulders. What if we put him on the top board and the team doesn’t perform well on the lower boards?
So putting Sasi on three was a good idea. This meant that things were much easier for him. In the past team events when Sasi was sick and would want to take a drop, I would ask him to continue because we needed him so badly. And he would do it. Here on board three he had a little less pressure as he met players rated 100-150 points below him.

Always Mr.Dependable: That's Sasikiran for you

The million dollar question was: Who should take the top board? Negi plays well against good opposition. He plays at his full strength when he is playing 2600-2700 players than against 2300-2400. So we decided to put him on the top board. As for Adhiban, he has been winning many big events. For eg. the very strong Biel Open. His rating has been steadily increasing, he is a great fighter, has excellent home preparation, superb tactician and even in difficult positions doesn’t give up so easily. We need fighters in team events. When some other player gets into trouble the whole team will feel very nervous but when Adhiban gets into trouble then nobody takes tension! (laughs). Because he has the capacity to come back into the game. So we thought with such fighting qualities, Adhiban will be perfect on the fourth board.

Tremendous fighting qualities made B Adhiban an ideal candidate to play on board four.

Sethuraman has been doing excellently recently. Even in the Asian Nations cup he came close to beating Le Quang Liem. He was never awed by his opponent's rating. His preparation as well as his temperament was good. So we decided to put him on board two. Thus the board order was formed.

SS: Was this the biggest achievement as a coach of your life?
RBR: I personally do not prefer to compare one success with another. When one of my young student comes to me with his first trophy, I am equally pleased. The achievement might not be too huge but for him that victory means a lot and is very special. And for me, everything that is special to my students is special for me. Sometimes a student is struggling for a long time and he gets a breakthrough, increases his rating or makes a norm or qualifies for something. Sometimes someone is losing to a specific player many times and if he is able to beat him once, that is also very special. Or if our opening preparation works out well then too I am very happy. So for a coach all these are moments of happiness. But on paper, this achievement has to be the best. Nothing can come close to it.

Every little achievement by his students is special to Ramesh. 

SS: One thing I have always wondered is : All the players in our Olympiad team are so strong and talented. How exactly do you help them? What is the role of a coach in such events?
RBR: These people are all professionals and everyone is higher rated than me. So there is not much that I can teach them in terms of chess things. They have all gone through a lot of stuff as chess players. Even though four of them were young, their experience is equivalent to that of a veteran. But, not at the highest level. Sasikiran has been a veteran in the 2650+ bracket now for quite some time. However others are just entering the 2600 zone. Sasikiran and Negi have played a lot of team events before so they know what they have to be doing. They tell me which openings they are thinking to play the next day and usually they make a good choice thanks to their experience.
I would like to give you an example of Negi’s maturity. Against Caruana he was black and played the Berlin. Fabiano played a great game and Negi lost. In the next round we were facing Cuba and on the top board we had black again. Lernier Dominguez is a world expert against the Berlin. And Negi’s main weapon against e4 was the Berlin. So he himself suggested that he would take a drop. This is experience. They know that certain things must not be tried in team events. If it were an individual event, he would have maybe tried the Berlin again but not in an Olympiad!

Parimarjan Negi: He is just 22-years-old but his maturity belies his age.

I was mainly working with Sethuraman. It was the first time he was playing in an event of such magnitude and also because I knew that if he plays reasonably well on board two, our team would perform well. He would be facing players near the rating of 2700 in almost all the games. It was important that at any moment he did not feel inadequate or start thinking that this task was beyond his capacity. He should have always the positive feeling that yes, I have a fighting chance or I can do it! I also noticed that he wasn’t eating or drinking well before or during the game. So I would bring for him tea and biscuits to keep him hydrated and not let him get tired by the fourth hour of play. And as Sethu’s results kept improving during the event, not only his morale but the morale of the entire team was lifted.

Backing up Sethuraman. That was his key role!

In his game against Akopain, Adhiban wasn’t sure whether to play Najdorf or Taimanov as black. He had already played Taimanov twice before in the tournament. But in Najdorf he had some problems in one of the lines. I had personally done some work on it before. We checked the line and he stopped at one point saying that he didn’t like the position. I deepened the analysis and suggested another pawn sacrifice with the move…b5!?. This was leading to unfathomable complications. Adhiban was happy with it and decided to play the Najdorf. Our preparation worked out really well and without much ado Adhiban drew with Akopian.

The combined preparation of Adhiban and Ramesh proved a tough nut for Akopian to crack!

In individual events players usually go for the most uncompromising setups. But in team events you have to see what others are going to play. If Sasikiran is going to play risky and try on third board, there is no point in going all out on the top board. So, taking all these decisions regarding the opening, was one of my key task.
Apart from that, keeping the player’s morale high and not letting the pressure get to them and at the same time preventing them from relaxing were some of my main roles as the coach.

SS: In team events, the players can ask the captain regarding the decisions of offering or accepting draws. Where there any interesting instances?
RBR: Against Germany, Sasikiran had already struck gold on board three against Nisipeanu. Negi was drawing comfortably against Naiditsch. And on the last board Adhiban had come out of his troubles and had a good position against Baramidze. So it all had narrowed down to Sethuraman’s game against Meier. If Sethu would draw against Meier, we would win the match. From the opening Meier equalized as black and it felt to me from outside that Sethu was a bit nervous. Though around the 40th move Sethu was better, I wanted him to offer a draw because it would seal a victory for us. Just as I was about to call the arbiter who would then tell Sethu to offer a draw, Meier himself offered a draw. And when Sethu asked me what to do! I just told him to take it! (laughs)

Another very interesting incident was our match with Canada. Negi was playing on the top board with Kovalyov. He had sacrificed a pawn for unclear compensation. I was quite tensed about the game. Slowly and steadily Batu (Negi’s nickname) started to fight back. And around the 30th move, the opponent offered a draw. Batu asked me what to do? I didn’t want to ask him to continue because I didn’t know how he was feeling. At the same time I didn’t want him to take a draw because the position was tricky and Negi loves such positions and plays them really well. So I told him,” I leave the option to you”. After some thought Negi avoided the repetition, continued playing and his opponent blundered and he won! If I would have asked him to take a draw, we wouldn’t have got that extra half point.

Only a person with a cool mind can take the right decision in such crucial moments

SS: So not taking a decision at the point and leaving it upto the player was actually a great decision! 
Tell, us which was the most crucial match in the entire tournament for Team India?
RBR: Every match was crucial but one game which gave us a lot of momentum and made us feel really good about ourselves as a team was the win against Canada with a score of 3.5-0.5. Canada was not super strong but they had reasonable players on all boards. But we beat them like a very weak team and this gave us the confidence that all the players were in excellent form.

In last round against Uzbekistan, even if we would have won 3-1, it would not have been enough. We would have been pushed out of the medals. 3.5-0.5 win against them was crucial.

The final sprint against Uzbekistan in the last round sealed the bronze medal for Team India

The win against Germany was crucial. We were the underdogs in that match but I think we had a fair chance as Nisipeanu was out of form and Sasikiran had beaten him before.
And against Armenia, Negi drawing against Aronian was important. And somehow Sasi worked up his magic in the time pressure against Movsesian to draw in a totally lost position.

Sasi is concentration personified in his key duel against Sergei Movsesian

SS: Was the Indian team a tad lucky that they played Uzbekistan in the last round and not some strong team like Russia or China?
RBR: Yes, we were pretty lucky in the last round to play against Uzbekistan and not one of the top teams. But in all other rounds we were playing in the top ten boards but the international media didn’t seem to notice that.

SS:The Chinese team convincingly won the gold medal. You must have been watching them closely. What was so special about them?
RBR: Chinese team is the perfect illustration of team spirit. They did not have the best players in the world. Like the absolute elite, but as a team they were wonderful. They bonded together so well. Even in 1996, when I was playing for India in the Yerevan Olympiad, I saw the Chinese team doing the same. Their players were just rated about 2500 but they gave all the top teams a run for their money. I think it is important for the teams to meet a few days prior to the event or as in our case, the team members should have played a few team events together. The players in the Chinese team always stood up for each other. If someone is not playing well, they would support him rather than isolating him.

It was the first time that an Asian country had won a gold medal at the open section of the Olympiad!

SS: A hypothetical question: If by some magical means Anand and Harikrishna play in the next Olympiad, do you think we will have a chance to better the Tromso performance?
RBR: I don’t know what will be the team composition in the next Olympiad, who will be the coach etc. But just from a hypothetical situation and an outsider’s point of view, I think that having the best players in the team is not the most important factor. Russia had all the top class players in the team yet they couldn’t do so well. The crucial factor is whether the players play together as a team. For eg. In Iran when I was the coach for the team at Asian Nations Cup and Adhiban used to get bad positions quite regularly. I would be pretty tensed. But then Sethuraman came upto me and said, “Anna, Don’t worry, this is how Adhiban plays!” Other players were kind of not getting affected by Adhiban’s board. They knew he would fight back. This is very important because in team events many times, the players see their team mate losing and they over-push in their own game and then they blame the loss on the other player. But in our team, the players knew each other so well that there was perfect co-ordination. So these factors are as important as having great players in the team.
Maybe with Anand, Hari and Sasi, we will have a good chance to go for another medal.

If these two guys do play for India in Azerbaijan 2016, who knows, we could keep the Olympiad Gold in Asia! 
(Picture taken from here)

SS: This interview would not be complete if I didn't ask you about the win of your student Aravindh Chithambaram against Alexie Shirov just a few days ago. Can you tell us something about it?
RBR: At the beginning of the tournament in Riga, Latvia, Aravindh’s laptop crashed. Now no one spoke  english there and it was very difficult to get the laptop in working condition. Luckily, the organizers helped and the laptop started working. But Aravindh has never really believed in working much on the openings. He just plays what comes to his mind. Of course, this has created a lot of issues in the opening stage of the game for him in the past but recently he has started working in this area and has become better. He knows now that he cannot just bluff against the best players in the world.

He came on Skype before the game and I told him that he had already made a GM norm irrespective of his result against Shirov.  So we were discussing what he should play. Recently I had seen Richard Rapport playing 1.b3 and I found it to be interesting. I had prepared the opening and gave it to my students. I had also given it to Aravindh, so I asked him whether he wanted to try it. In fact Aravindh also plays 1.a3. So he had an option between 1.a3 and 1.b3 (laughs). Finally, he decided to play 1.b3. 

Before parting he asked me whether I was sure that he had made the GM norm. I said, “It seems so but ask your mother to confirm it with the arbiter.” To which he replied, “I don’t care about the norm, I just want to beat Shirov!” I put this on twitter and it immediately became viral!
SS: WOW! And what was Aravindh's reaction after the game?
RBR: Before the Riga event, we (I and his mother) tried to curb his habit of watching movies during the tournament. He had promised that he wouldn’t watch a movie while the tournament was on. So once he had beaten Shirov and the event was over (as that was the last round), he came into the room and started watching some movie! (laughs!!)
When a former world champion writes something like this, you can be rest assured that the lad has a great future ahead of him! 

SS: So the kid just beat Shirov and the first thing he wanted to do was watch a movie!
RBR: Apparently yes!! (laughs)

That's how the relation between a coach and a student should be!

SS: My final question! And the big one! You were the commentator of the world championship match between Anand and Carlsen in 2013. What do you think will happen in 2014 and how will the match be different from the previous one?

Ramesh got excellent reviews as a world championship commentator

RBR: My personal opinion as a player can be divided into two parts:
Psychological preparation: Prior to the 2013 match, Anand did not have good results with Carlsen. That was playing a role in Anand’s mental setup for the match in 2013. If Anand has a chance to beat Carlsen in 2014, then it all depends on how he prepares himself psychologically to forget these negative results.

Chess Preparation: I think Anand should play critical lines as White against Carlsen in their next match. Carlsen’s style of play is that he will take you to positions which are non-theoretical and then try to press. While this is possible as White, doing this with Black entails serious risk. It is very difficult to find unusual setups with black which are not risky. So, Anand, when he has white must go for aggressive and dynamic setups even if it doesn’t give him an advantage. Like he did in the ninth game of the 2013 match. What will happen then is that Carlsen will have to play one game in aggressive and dynamic fashion as Black and a very quiet and solid game as White. This is something like left hand, right hand combination in cricket. It is very difficult for a bowler to bowl against this. So this constant change in style requires a lot of experience which Carlsen lacks in match play. At the same time, Carlsen’s performance recently has not been very good. He has lost to quite a few players. So, this always gives us hope. If others can do it why not Anand!

SS:So according to you Anand will have better chances this year than the last world championship match?
RBR: Yes, this I will definitely agree. I am much more hopeful of a positive result in this match!

SS: It was wonderful interviewing you. I didn't have to push you for any answer! You were so open and gave a detailed answer to my every question. Thank you very much.
RBR: It was my pleasure! All the best for your GM title!

Collection of my favourite Ramesh pics!
 One thing that I would love to imbibe from this man would be to : "Never lose the childlike innocence in life! :) "

Pictures taken from the facebook page of Ramesh and Gopakumar Sudhakaran.

About the Author

Name: IM Sagar Shah.

Elo: 2468 with 1 GM norm

I fell in love with the game of chess when I was 10 years old. From being a past time, it has become my full time profession. I love to be in the chess world and ChessAce is a website which helps me do that! My biggest success in chess has been winning the strong Dresden Open 2014 ahead of many strong grandmasters. I am happily married to the love of my life: Amruta Mokal.


  1. one of the best chess related interview in india. happy to see that at least some people put this kind effort, person who behind the success of India's bronze chess Olympiad .