India is a chess superpower now. Why has no coach received the Dronacharya in 16 years?

From just 3 GMs in 1999 to 76 now, and several medals in international events. Yet only one chess coach has received a Dronacharya in this period.

ByAjay Tomar

Published Nov 20, 2022 | 11:00 AMUpdated Dec 31, 2022 | 4:58 PM

India is a chess superpower now. Why has no coach received the Dronacharya in 16 years?

The last time a chess coach received the Dronacharya Award, Sourav Ganguly was still the captain of the Indian men’s cricket team.

Grandmaster D Gukesh, whose stunning performance on the top board for India 2 in the Chess Olympiad played a key role in the team winning a medal earlier this year, was just a month old then. Grandmaster R Praggnanandhaa, who ended the nine-year-long wait of chess for an Arjuna Award earlier this month, was a year old.

Yes, the wait has been long. To be precise, 16 years.

It was Ashok Koneru, father and coach of Koneru Humpy — the current women’s world No 3 from Andhra Pradesh — who last received the prestigious award in 2006. Raghunandan Gokhale is the only other chess coach to have received the Dronacharya, way back in 1986.

Since 2006, as many as 94 Dronacharya awards have been presented in several sports but none have gone to chess, which has produced 59 grandmasters during the same period.

Step-motherly treatment

“It looks like Indian chess has been progressing in the last two decades without any role by the Indian coaches. That is why they are being ignored. Probably Indian coaches are not good enough yet to receive such awards,” a top Indian chess coach, who did not want to be named, quipped to South First.

Named after Dronacharya from one of the oldest and longest Sanskrit epics Mahabharata, the award is the highest honour for sports coaches in India.

This year the awards, announced on 14 November, will be presented by President Droupadi Murmu on 30 November at the Rashtrapati Bhavan.

Related: Pragg ends long wait for chess Arjuna Award

59 new grandmasters since 2006

Indian chess has reached a stage where the country is considered a superpower. It currently ranks fifth in the tally of grandmasters. Like any other sport, such a rapid rise would not have been possible without the effort of coaches.

Former President Pratibha Patil presenting the Dronacharya Award to Ashok Koneru in 2006.

Former President Pratibha Patil presenting the Dronacharya Award to Ashok Koneru in 2006. (Wikimedia Commons)

In 1999, India had just three grandmasters, the highest title a chess player can attain. They were Viswanathan Anand, Dibyendu Barua, and Pravin Thipsay.

In 2006, the year a chess coach last received a Dronacharya, India had 17 grandmasters. Since then, the number of grandmasters in the country has jumped to 76.

Out of the new 59 grandmasters, 35 are from the southern states. They include Pragg, D Gukesh (both Tamil Nadu), Arjun Erigaisi (Telangana), and Nihal Sarin (Kerala), who are among the young Indian grandmasters capable of reaching the pinnacle of chess.

Chess coaches speak

Three chess players trained by Vishal Sareen have received the Arjuna Award — Tania Sachdev (2009), Parimarjan Negi (2010), and Abhijeet Gupta (2013).

Sareen, an international master, told South First, “Two chess coaches should have been considered for the Dronacharya Award long ago — RB Ramesh and myself. The award is a great boost for any coach. It is unfortunate that we haven’t received it yet.”

Vishal Sareen with his student GM Abhijeet Gupta. (ICS/Facebook)

Vishal Sareen with his student GM Abhijeet Gupta. (ICS/Facebook)

RB Ramesh wears many hats. Himself a grandmaster, he took up coaching in 2008.

What can be called breakthrough moments for Indian chess happened under his supervision when the country secured bronze twice — 2014 and 2022 — in the Chess Olympiad. These are the only medals India has ever won in an over-the-board Olympiad.

Several of his students have won international tournaments and more than 10 have become grandmasters.

With Ramesh as a coach, India has won at least 35 medals in World Youth chess championships, 42 in Asian Youth chess championships, and 23 in Commonwealth Youth chess championships, apart from 37 national titles.

The coach from Chennai was also awarded best junior coach by FIDE (International Chess Federation) in 2018 and Asia’s best junior coach award in 2015.

Srinath Narayanan is the coach of young Grandmaster Nihal Sarin. Just 28, Srinath, a grandmaster himself, has also been the coach of a medal-winning Indian Youth Olympiad team and was also the vice-captain of the Indian team that won a gold at the FIDE Online Chess Olympiad during the pandemic.

Srinath told South First, “If one person deserves it, it is RB Ramesh sir. His students have won several medals across various championships including the Olympiad.”

He added that it would be good for chess coaches to get recognition with awards such as the Dronacharya.

So why no Dronacharya for chess coaches in 16 years?

With all his achievements, Ramesh had applied for the Dronacharya Award in 2015 and 2016 and as recently as this year, without any success.

“I am surprised that Ramesh applied this year and still did not get it. We have given up our jobs to become coaches,” Sareen said.

Ramesh has earlier noted that “non-Olympic sports are not given preference in important awards and that rules favour Olympic sports”.

Since 2006, four Olympic sports have dominated the Dronacharya award: Athletics is on the top with 15 awards followed by wrestling (13), boxing (13), and hockey (12).

Vipnesh Bhardwaj, vice president of the AICF, claimed, "The federation is trying and sending the names every year to the government. However it is for the government to decide who to give it to."

Bharat Singh Chauhan, former All India Chess Federation (AICF) secretary and deputy president of the Asian Chess Federation, also told South First that the government's criteria do not appear to fit chess.

"We have good coaches such as Ramesh, Sareen, and Abhijit Kunte. We have nominated Ramesh a few times, but he was not selected by the committee. But we are hopeful that since chess has got the Arjuna award this year, a Dronacharya is also coming. Especially as we hosted the Chess Olympiad this year and chess caught the eyes of the government," Chauhan added.

Woman Grandmaster and coach Aarthie Ramaswamy, who is also the wife of Ramesh, told South First that chess players have started getting the awards again, referring to the Arjuna Awards for Pragg and Bhakti Kulkarni this year.

"I hope coaches will get their due soon," she added.