A Perfect Triangle: GM Amanov on Coaching Raj to Gold

Raj Chennareddy

On June 18, 2016, I received a standard e-mail:

Hello GM Amanov:

We are currently looking for a coach/mentor for our 5-year-old son (he has won school level tournaments) and have heard some great reviews about you.

I would like to know if you currently have any spots open and, if so, your fee for such training. We live in the city of Chicago but are willing to travel.

Thanks!!

Satish C Reddy

I replied:

Hello Satish,

This is GM Mesgen Amanov, replying to you from my personal e-mail. The e-mail you’ve used is for my online coaching program.

It seems to me that you are interested in private coaching. I do have a spot for a new student, but not committing to teach on a regular basis. After first lesson I evaluate my student and decide if working together will benefit your son and me. I prefer to work with kids who are thriving for improvement and truly enjoying the game.

My fee is xxx. I live in Glenview and teach at my house, parents can watch the lesson too. Please let me know if you would like to schedule first session and then I will provide with details such as address, day and time.

It always begins something like this. Sometimes, a miracle happens.

Indeed, this was the beginning of the beautiful journey that took Yuvraj “Raj” Chennareddy, his family, and me to the 2018 World Cadet Championship, held November 3 through 16 in Santiago De Compostela, Spain.

GM Mesgen Amanov, Photo IM Eric Rosen

Last year, I wrote an article, entitled “Path to the Podium,” exclusively for US Chess. It later became “Article of the Year.” I was humbled and grateful for that recognition. This article will be completely different. In this article, I write about different “angles” of chess training: Student, Parents, and Coach. In a recent discussion with some of my Grandmaster friends, the term “Athletic Triangle” was mentioned a few times. I personally had not heard this term before. I googled it and found that others have written extensively on this subject with respect to various sports. Although I did not do a comprehensive search, I could not find another article explicitly linking this concept to chess training. I always just thought of it as “the triangle.” But…English is my second language, so do not blame me for being blunt.

To achieve the best results in chess, all three parties must perform at the highest level. Thus, I have divided this article into four parts. The first three outline, in my view, how each aspect of the triangle (Student, Parents, and Coach, respectively) must function to achieve outstanding results. The fourth part summarizes Raj’s efforts and successes in Spain, exemplifying what a strong triangle can achieve.

Part I: Student

I had my first meeting with Raj on July 9, 2016. Raj was almost six, at that time, shy to meet his first coach. His rating was only 416, and he had only played 15 tournament games. At that level, everyone blunders their queen from time to time.

The first lesson is very important. This is when the coach must show that there is no place to fool around, no place for silliness, and, most importantly, must establish respect. At five-six years old, chess is a new world and mostly perceived as a fun game. There are several things that excite young players about chess. Some are fascinated by the mere fact that chess is a game, like any other boardgame, and involves playing with someone else. Other kids enjoy tournaments, because there are so many other kids to play with. And, I am not just talking chess…They like to run around, fool around, laugh at silly jokes, and just be happy. Still others like the competition, especially the trophies. But, which five or six-year-old doesn’t like trophies? There is, though, one more group of kids: Those who are fascinated by chess itself; those who are looking for the truth; those who ask many reasonable questions…

Raj was the truth-seeker, asked a lot of good questions, and was just fascinated by chess. But, it was not just that. He also loved trophies, loved running around with kids, and loved playing chess for fun. After 6 months of regular private and group lessons, I understood that Raj not only loves chess but is also capable of working hard. Not many can dedicate 4 hours of chess every day at the age of six. But, if you don’t do that, I assure you that somewhere, maybe in Russia, India, or China, some kid would do that… And, does do that, as you read. This being the case, we must do it better!

Raj in Santiago, Spain, sporting Two Sigma T-shirt.

At seven years old, Raj was breaking records. Did you know that Raj was 1900+ when he was still just seven? I don’t think anybody did, because we didn’t want early publicity or recognition. We didn’t want him to think that he is the highest rated seven-year-old player in the world and encourage overconfidence.

So, how did this transition happen, from six-year-old beginner to the highest rated seven year old in the US or perhaps the world? How about two years of training for an average 4-5 hours a day? Don’t believe me? Let me break it down for you…

Imagine you spend one hour analyzing grandmaster games, one hour solving tactical puzzles, one hour watching online video lessons, one hour playing chess online, one hour solving endgame studies, and one hour watching online opening lessons. This is just independent work at home. Then you have a one and half hour private lesson each week and about four hours a week of group lessons.

I know this schedule looks tough, but it’s the only way when the competition is so stiff! Last year, when Aren Emrikian became the 2017 World Cadet Champion Under 8, he spent, on average, 3-4 hours a day training.

2017 World Under 8 Champ Aren Aren Emrikian

One extra hour of training seems to make a difference. I see an improvement in move quality and overall play. One thing is for sure: both boys are brilliant and hardworking and deserve to be World Champions in their age category.

Part II: Parents

No student would ever become a World Champion if not for their parent’s unconditional love and sacrifice. Parents are everything. I have met hundreds of parents, and, of course, each parent’s approach is different. (for more on this, see our December CL cover story.)

Most of the time parents decide that it is time to start chess, either by signing-up for an after-school chess program or start lessons with a coach. Over time, they learn from more experienced parents, usually at the tournaments. And, of course, they can see which kids do well and try to find out who are their coaches. I don’t think parents should choose a coach based on convenience. Often, coach selection depends on distance (if commuting), price, and coach’s experience. Yes, all of that is important, but, if you are an ambitious parent, you must look deeper. For example, you can have coach living nearby, giving lessons at a good price, that is somewhat experienced, but that is not enough. Your coach must show a lot of care, be ambitious, fully engaged, and with a clear plan on how to improve his/her students.

When the right choice is made, the most important thing left for parents to do is to trust their coach. Often, parents don’t know much about chess, and the only thing that they can rely on is the coach’s guidance and feedback. Any issue or concern must be addressed immediately.

Raj’s mom Prathima and dad Satish, for example, are the easiest people to work with, because we have a mutual trust. They never had to check if I taught well or gave enough homework, nor did I worry if Raj was sleeping well or had enough to eat during the tournament. (I always care about these things.) It was enough to discuss this with them just once.

Yuvraj Chennareddy and mother Prathima PHOTO FIDE

When training at home and with a coach are optimized there is another important detail that parents must keep under control: tournaments. It is important to play as many tournaments as possible. I am not saying to play every weekend, but every other weekend or at  least once a month. An ideal number would be about 20 tournaments per year.

To be clear, these recommendations are only appropriate if you have very high goals for chess. High goals, I would consider to be anything at the national or international level. Anything state level and below are semi-professional and may not require the recommendations above.

Part III: Coach

To achieve the highest results, a coach should not be an active player himself/herself. Active players are those who play more than one tournament a month and, in my view, cannot dedicate enough time to his/her students. I personally do not know anyone who is actively playing chess and has mentored someone exceptional. Here is what I can tell you from my own experience: I stopped playing any active chess in 2014. I simply realized that I cannot simultaneously teach on the highest level and play at an appropriate Grandmaster level. My rating slowly slipped from 2614 to 2481. How could this happen? It is simple: I started to care much more about my students play and had no time for own training. This type of career sacrifice is very difficult. Indeed, I have many friends who still try to play and teach, but I do not see exceptional results in either field. All chess players who became great coaches stopped playing chess actively, including M. Botvinnik, M. Dvoretzky, A. Yusupov, J. Aagaard, R. B. Ramesh, M. Sher, G. Kacheishvili, B. Annakov, and M. Khachiyan, to name a few. This, of course, is not a complete list; there are dozens of other great coaches who sacrificed active play.

A good coach does not have to have a Grandmaster or International Master title. I personally know a few brilliant coaches who are FIDE and National Masters. Experience matters more. What I know now I could not know before; it takes years to understand which methods work and which do not. There are many techniques, and I have tried them all. All coaches have their own approach and, of course, are comfortable with what they do. But, I do not think what is comfortable for coaches matters much. I think coaches must slightly adjust to students. All students are unique and require a personalized approach. As long as we show them important theoretical positions, build their opening repertoire, sharpen their tactical vision, teach them endgame fundamentals, improve their positional understanding and work on their middlegame planning we will be on the right path. But it is important to work on all areas and not just focus on one.

If you are a coach, here is my advice: If you happen to meet your new student, and, within a few months realize that your student shows passion; his/her eyes are excited about the game; you catch yourself thinking, “Wow, he/she is good–I see something special!” Then, after your lesson is finished, talk to yourself more and make a commitment. Set up a goal and promise yourself that you will try your best, as you have a big responsibility now. Your student has shown you some hard work and, it means he or she is ready for the next step. That step might change your student’s life, and your life, forever.

Garry Kasparov at the 2017 STL Rapid and Blitz, Photo Eric Rosen

Some people call it a talent… I have a little different view on and, as such, would like to quote Garry Kasparov: “You often hear in chess and other sports that ‘this player is more talented’ but ‘that player works harder.’ This is a fallacy. Hard work is a talent. The ability to keep trying when others quit is a talent.” I have long resonated with this quote and believe it to be true. I would like to point out here that this sentiment also pertains to coaches; you must not forget that you have to work hard too!

I remember that, when I met Aren and Raj, I made a promise to myself that I will never waste their time. I came up with a plan and now I am 100% sure it works. If you want to know to know more about how I train some of my students, please see Path to the Podium. 

The Chennareddy family

Now, let us not forget that there are other factors which are important in the development of a chess player. I cannot imagine playing chess or learning chess on a high level, living in a city in which chess is unpopular. I mean, what if there are no chess clubs or organizers who run tournaments on a regular basis? Cities like New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Houston, and others are rich with local chess clubs and regular tournaments. Aren and Raj were lucky that they happen to live in Chicago, where they have accesses to tournaments every other week. I would like to thank Chicago Chess Center (CCC), Evanston Chess Club, and Chess Weekend for organizing great tournaments and helping thousands of chess players improve their game.

Part IV: 2018 World Cadet Championship: How it all happened

This year, I worked with two boys Yuvraj Chennareddy (Raj) and Andy Woodward. Both played in the Under 8 open tournament. I only started to work with Andy 3 months prior to the World Championship. Andy’s parents reached out to me through my online coaching program ImproveMyChess.com. They told me that he enjoys my videos wondered if I could help Andy prepare for the World Championship. Of course, I wish we had started earlier; in that case I would have more time to fix everything that needed to be fixed. During the World Championship, I realized even more what needs to be done to make Andy’s play stronger. Overall, I am very happy with the result: Andy tied for 19th place and got 23rd place on the tiebreak. Hopefully, Andy and I will continue working together until the next World Championship, and we will be able to show a better result–I know he can for sure fight for the podium!

Like last year, I was helping the boys online via skype for all 11 rounds, starting at 2am Chicago time and finishing at 6am. On average I was spending between 3 and 4 hours to prepare both boys for their games. What exactly I do, and did, you can read in my previous article, Path to the Podium. I was not the only one who helped Raj at the World Championship. As a National Champion, Raj had the opportunity to work with a US Chess Team Coach, on site. Prior to the tournament, we had to choose with whom he would work. I looked at the list, and all of the names were familiar. They were all coaches who I respect and have brought medals for Team USA. But, looking at the list, I told Raj’s mom, “I know whom we will ask to work with Raj, IM Kostya Kavutskiy!”

Kostya Kavutskiy, Photo IM Eric Rosen March 2018

It is funny how life works.

Earlier this year, I was travelling around Europe, and I knew that my friends IM Eric Rosen and IM Kostya Kavutskiy were also on the road.  It just so happened that we were all in Barcelona, and I invited them to visit me in my hotel for drinks.

Coincidental meeting of minds in Barcelona

At one point, Kostya said that he was actually coming back to Spain as a coach for World Cadet Championship and asked a very particular question: “How do you develop a talented junior into a world champion?” I replied: “Lots of chess training and mental preparation.” Psychology is huge at that level. Kids get easily intimidated at that age. If you want to prepare a World Champion, he/she has to have a Warrior Mind Set. Remembering this conversation, I knew that Kostya is an eager, ambitious, and hardworking guy who would be the best fit. I also knew that we could chat anytime and discuss what opening choice would be good for Raj. Kostya gave himself 100%, and I would like to thank him for that.

How does it feel to have 9 out of 9 points and then win a Gold Medal with 10.5 points out of 11?

I asked Raj, and here’s what he said: “I feel on the ninth cloud ever since my last game has finished! I am spending time with my cousins and family, taking a week off from chess. My plan is to work on chess studies and to catch up with school stuff. My next goal is to become the youngest to win the World Cadet Championship Under 10.” And I thought, Oh dear, Raj, that’s more work for me! I also asked Raj to annotate his favorite game. I personally think this is his best game, and the level of it is very advanced:

As of for me, I am very proud of how my students do. I am lucky to meet these brilliant students. Raj is my 3rd World Champion Under 8. My first World Champion was Awonder Liang in 2011. I cannot take full credit, as I was only working with him for one year. Awonder’s dad, a good chess player himself, taught Awonder most of it. I cannot imagine how difficult that it is to be both a parent and a coach. It is also obvious, but if I would have been Awonder’s only coach, we would not have been able to achieve the World Champion title, as I was playing about 12 tournaments a year back then. Currently GM Awonder Liang is a top Junior Grandmaster in the World with a big chance to become a World Chess Champion. Working with Awonder was an important experience for me, because it taught me to recognize who has the potential to become the next World Champion or be close to that. In 2013 I met Arthur Xu. He was 5 years old and within a few months I knew he could be one of the best in the world. Last year, he became a silver medalist at the World Cadet Championship Under 10. I wish Arthur to become the World Champion under 12 years old next year!

In 2015, I met Aren and, in 2016, Raj. Winning two gold medals back to back in 2017 and 2018 under 8 years old feels, honestly, I do not know what word to use… I guess I feel extremely proud. But, it also feels justified considering how much work we have put in. It feels very special, as Aren and Raj started with me at 5 years old and never had another private lesson with any chess coach prior to becoming World Champions.

These World Cadet Championships are very stressful for the Athletic Triangle. But I would take that stress every year. Of course, I know that not every year there will be a gold medal, or any medal, but one thing is for sure: We Will Try Our Best! Go Team USA!

P.S. I want to thank Ani Poladian for helping me edit this article. When I first wrote it, it was nothing like you see it in this final version. My previous article “Path to the Podium” was as well edited by Ani and I am truly grateful for her help. I also thank Jennifer Shahade for making all final edits, formatting at the proper spots and all her work at US Chess. 

US Chess thanks Two Sigma for their generous support of our World Youth and World Cadet teams, which bagged four medals in total, as well as the entire coaching squad led by Aviv Friedman (Head of Delegation), Robert Hungaski (assistant HoD), Andranik Matikozyan, Alex Lenderman, Armen Ambatsoumian and Kostya Kavutskiy.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Mesgen Amanov was born in 1986. He is a Grandmaster who has represented Turkmenistan national team in 4 Olympiads and numerous international tournaments. He graduated from Sport and Tourism University with a degree in Chess Coaching. In 2008, Mesgen moved to the USA, and now resides in Illinois. He has recorded over a hundred online video lessons for improvemychess.com

Comments

  1. It’s hard work being a chess parent! It’s always a pleasure to have Prathima as a kibitzer at our events.

    Realistically, not every brilliant & hard-working young child is going to have the same phenomenal level of success as Raj or Aren, even with a great coach like Mesgen. But that’s OK. The thinking skills young people learn from chess are preparing them for great successes in life!

  2. Congratulations!
    I’m sorry to inform you that you thought wrong about Raj as the only boy crossing 1900+ at the age of 7. A few other boys have done this too, for example: Abhimanyu Mishra.
    Again, congratulations at a job well done to the triangle parties!

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