Will Pragg’s stellar World Cup show end 17-year wait of chess coaches for Dronacharya Award?

The strength of Indian grandmasters has gone from three in 1999 to 83. But only one chess coach, Ashok Koneru, has received the Dronacharya during this period.

ByAjay Tomar

Published Aug 25, 2023 | 3:11 PMUpdatedAug 25, 2023 | 3:11 PM

India's stellar chess World Cup show Will 17-year-old wait for Dronacharya award end now

George W Bush was still the US President, ISRO had not launched the Chandrayaan-1, and R Praggnanandhaa — fondly called Pragg — was a year-old toddler in Chennai when India last honoured a chess coach with the prestigious Dronacharya Award 16 years ago.

With the teen chess wizard and Arjuna awardee, Praggnanandhaa, becoming the runner-up at the 2023 FIDE World Cup after holding off against World No 1 Magnus Carlsen for three days and four games of intense, nerve-racking moves across two formats, talks of a Dronacharya for a chess coach are heard loud and clear once again.

The last chess instructor to receive the honour was Ashok Koneru. He received the Dronacharya Award for 2006 on 29 August, 2007.

Ever since the then-President Pratibha Patil presented the award to Koneru, 98 coaches from other disciplines have won the Dronacharya, but none for chess — believed to have derived from Chaturanga. During this period, India produced 66 grandmasters.

Named after Dronacharya, the royal preceptor of the Kauravas and Pandavas in the epic Mahabharata, the award is the highest honour for sports coaches in India.

Also read: From Chennai lanes to Candidates: Praggnanandhaa’s journey

From 17 to 83 GMs in 17 years

India is now considered a chess superpower. It is ranked fifth considering the number of grandmasters. Like any other sport, such a rapid rise would not have been possible without the dedication of excellent coaches.

Will Pragg's stellar World Cup show end 17-year wait of chess coaches for Dronacharya Award

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 country had 17 grandmasters. Since then, the number of grandmasters in the country has jumped to 83.

Out of the new 66 grandmasters, 38 are from the southern states. Praggnanandhaa (the youngest), D Gukesh (both Tamil Nadu), Arjun Erigaisi (Telangana), and Nihal Sarin (Kerala), are among the young Indian grandmasters.

Besides Ashok Koneru, father and coach of Koneru Humpy — the current women’s World No 4 from Andhra Pradesh — Raghunandan Gokhale is the only other chess coach to have received the Dronacharya. He was honoured in 1986.

Related: Praggnanandhaa ends long wait for chess Arjuna Award

Who is Pragg’s coach? 

According to the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports — which selects the awardees — a coach should have produced outstanding achievement over four years preceding the year in which the award is to be presented.

If there could be a possible contender from chess to receive the Dronacharya Award this year, it would be Pragg’s coach RB Ramesh.

Will Pragg's stellar World Cup show end 17-year wait of chess coaches for Dronacharya Award?

Pragg with his coach RB Ramesh. (X)

Ramesh himself wears many hats. India’s 10th Grandmaster, he took up coaching in 2008.

In what can be termed as India’s coming of age on 64-squared chess boards, it was under his supervision that the country secured bronze twice — in 2014 and 2022 — in the Chess Olympiad. These are the only medals India has ever won in an over-the-board Olympiad.

Several of Ramesh’s students have won international tournaments, and more than 10 are grandmasters.

Under Ramesh’s coaching, India has won at least 35 medals in the World Youth Chess Championships, 42 in the Asian Youth Chess Championships, and 23 in the Commonwealth Youth Chess Championships, apart from 37 national titles.

FIDE adjudged Ramesh from Chennai as the best junior coach in 2018 and Asia’s best junior coach in 2015.

Pragg’s coach: Rejected twice

Ramesh initially applied for the prestigious award in 2015, and then in 2016.

“I applied for the award in 2015 but did not get it. Then I filed an RTI application and found that I received zero marks as per the criteria. I decided not to apply again but some of my well-wishers made me apply the next year as they were confident that I would get it. But in 2016, too, I did not get the award,” he told South First over the phone from Romania after Pragg’s final on Thursday, 24 August.


Ramesh applied for a third time after the 2022 Chess Olympiad hosted by India in Chennai.

“Again, it was the same result. So what is the point in applying when you know that you’re not going to get the award? I feel the whole system of applying itself is not comfortable,” he said.

Ramesh opined that coaches should not demand awards for themselves. “People should feel okay that we coaches have done something for the country and our efforts should be appreciated. Otherwise, the award doesn’t mean anything,” he added.

He felt that giving recognition to Indian chess coaches would motivate them to take risks. “I had to quit my job as a deputy manager when I turned full-time coach in 2008,” Ramesh pointed out.

Also read: Why has no chess coach received the Dronacharya in 16 years?

Step-motherly treatment

A top Indian chess coach, who did not want to be named, could not hide the disappointment.

“It looks like Indian chess has been progressing over the past two decades without any coaches. That is why they are being ignored. Probably Indian coaches are not good enough to receive such awards,” he told South First earlier.

Will Pragg's stellar World Cup show end 17-year wait of chess coaches for Dronacharya Award?

Coach Vishal Sareen with GM Abhijeet Gupta. (Supplied)

Three chess players trained by another coach, Vishal Sareen, were presented with the Arjuna Award: Tania Sachdev (2009), Parimarjan Negi (2010), and Abhijeet Gupta (2013).

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

Srinath Narayanan, who is the coach of 53rd Grandmaster Nihal Sarin of Kerala, 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.”

Narayanan, 28, 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 gold at the FIDE Online Chess Olympiad during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Also read: Gukesh wins World Chess Armageddon Asia & Oceania

Why no Dronacharya for chess coaches in 16 years?

The Dronacharya Award is presented to eligible coaches who produce outstanding results in different Olympic sports, non-Olympic sports and indigenous sports that are recognised by the Union government.

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).

Indian team during the Chess Olympiad 2022 in Chennai (from left to right) — GA Stany, Pragg, B Adhiban, Raunak Sadhwani, Nihal Sarin, D Gukesh, Arjun Kalyan, and coach RB Ramesh. (Rb Ramesh/Twitter)

Indian team during the Chess Olympiad 2022 in Chennai (from left to right) — GA Stany, Pragg, B Adhiban, Raunak Sadhwani, Nihal Sarin, D Gukesh, Arjun Kalyan, and coach RB Ramesh. (Rb Ramesh/Twitter)

“Pragg’s achievement is undisputedly commendable. After Viswanathan Anand, he is the only one to reach that level. A Dronacharya Award for a chess coach should be considered this time.” Vipnesh Bhardwaj, Interim Secretary and former Vice-President of the All India Chess Federation told South First,

On whether the Federation would be recommending the names, he said: “The Federation is sending the names every year to the government. It is for the government and the Sports Ministry to select the recipient. If they ask us for clarifications on any of the recommended names, we can provide them with facts.”

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

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 cover chess.

“We have good coaches such as Ramesh, Sareen, and Abhijit Kunte. We have nominated Ramesh a few times but he was not selected. We are hopeful that since chess has got the Arjuna Award this year, a Dronacharya is also coming,” he said.

“After all, we hosted the Chess Olympiad this year and chess caught the government’s attention,” Chauhan added.