"Chess teaches you so much!": An interview with IM Sabrina Vega

by Tatiana Flores
7/26/2021 – Sabrina Vega is the best woman player in the history of Spanish chess. She won the national women's championship six times and represented her country in five Chess Olympiads. In an interview with Tatiana Flores, Sabrina Vega talks about her chess career and how chess can help you to grow and to enrich your personality.

ChessBase 16 - Mega package Edition 2021 ChessBase 16 - Mega package Edition 2021

Your key to fresh ideas, precise analyses and targeted training!
Everyone uses ChessBase, from the World Champion to the amateur next door. It is the program of choice for anyone who loves the game and wants to know more about it. Start your personal success story with ChessBase and enjoy the game even more.

More...

The several times Spanish women’s champion and Olympic medalist Sabrina Vega Gutierrez, born on February 28, 1987, in Las Palmas de Gran Canarias in Spain, became a WGM in 2007 and received her IM title in 2013. Recently, she met with Tatiana Flores via Zoom to chat about the Premio Reina Sofia (Queen Sofia Prize) award she has recently received, about her professional life during the pandemic, her position as a role model in women's chess, and much more.

Sabrina Vega Gutiérrez at the third edition of the Salamanca Chess Festival in February 2021

 

Tatiana Flores: You recently won the Premio Reina Sofia (Queen Sofia Prize), which is awarded for "especially relevant gestures of nobility or fair play in sports". You received the prize because you decided not to participate in the Blitz and Rapid World Championship 2017 in Saudi Arabia because of the conditions that were imposed there on female players. What did it mean to you to receive this award from the the Queen of Spain?

Sabrina Vega: I believe every award and distinction that I have received because of my chess achievements is an honor, and to me they are all important. This one, however, was a very special one. Not only because the King and the Queen of Spain gave it to me personally or because it is one of the most prestigious Spanish awards, but also because I received it for a decision that had a lot to do with the transmission of values that I believe are very important in chess. To me, chess and sports have always been more me than just a discipline in which you compete – chess and sports in general reach much further and also have a social function. This award recognized my efforts to defend this and this makes it special for me.

Sabrina Vega Gutiérrez standing next to the King and Queen of Spain after receiving the award

How much did the great chess culture of Gran Canaria influence your decision of becoming a professional chess player?

This is a point I’m always very eager to talk about in the seminars and conferences I have the luck to sometimes give at clubs or chess events. I think, one of the most important factors to recognize chess is the tradition that institutions and schools that support and promote this sport have established. I think that is what helps the most.

Here I always refer to my career as an example: I was the first one in my family and in my close environment who started to chess. And I discovered chess because it has such a long tradition here in Gran Canarias and is still very present.

At first, chess for me was just an extracurricular activity, but such opportunities help a lot to foster interest in chess. We also have had a lot of top tournaments here and big simultaneous exhibitions that took place all over the city – imagine how exciting that was for me as a kid! – and chess was also present in politics. All this helped and motivated me to start with chess. And if you do not get a chance to try out something, you’ll never know whether you like it or not.

Your elder sister, the WIM Belinda Vega Gutierrez, started playing chess tournaments some years after you, and she has also become a professional chess player. How was it for both of you to have such a great passion in common? Were there any periods of jealousy or great rivalry? 

It has always been wonderful to be able to share it all with her. I started competing in tournaments very soon after I had learnt the rules of the games – almost from the beginning – and having someone with whom I could share all these new and exciting experiences has been very important to me. In the end, not only Belinda, but my whole family started to play chess!

It is simply great to travel with my sister to tournaments, to play with her, to talk about chess, to do all these things together. I actually found chess because of her: at that time she practiced gymnastics and had a very strict training schedule. To make it a bit easier for our parents to drive us around and to pick us up, I decided to give chess a chance as it fitted perfectly with Belinda’s schedule.

Some years later, when my sister quit gymnastics, she started to play chess because she saw how much I liked it. It also allowed her to keep competing. This way we helped each other to find something we liked and in which we were really good. I think that’s fantastic.

But there never was any jealousy nor rivalry between us though we sometimes had to play against each other in ridiculous circumstances. In 2013 we both played in the European Women’s Championship in Belgrade, which had a record breaking number of players – around 150 – but in the first round we had to play against each other! It is almost absurd! But well, we always drew our games and tried to take it with humor.

However, sometimes it also turned out to be good that organizers tried to avoid pairing us together. One time, I was to play in the Spanish Junior Championship U12 and Belinda was to play in the U14 but I had caught chickenpox and could not play. However, when I had recovered after a few days I was allowed to play in the U16 to give me a chance to still play but to avoid putting me in the same group with my sister. Back then the very young children played some days earlier than the older ones. That turned out to be a blessing because I won my group and Belinda won hers. It was a very important and binding family moment for both of us. It was fantastic!

What do you think are the most important skills that chess can teach us?

That’s a question I could write a whole book about! There are definitely a lot, but the most fundamental one for me would be that chess helps to develop and to structure the brain. Everything else then follows from there: the ability to make decisions, time management and the ability to cope with frustrations.

In chess we get used to having information, which we sort and analyze with the purpose to make the best possible decision with limited time. You know that you should not rush but you do not have endless time either. We learn to accept that every decision – or move – has a consequence. These are the principal skills that chess teaches us and they resemble life a lot: In life we are also constantly taking decisions, and we are surrounded by information and data we have to process and evaluate.

I believe that chess also helps to develop a strong frustration control. The game teaches us that failure is something natural and inevitable, just like it’s in real life. It shows us that mistakes are part of the way to success; one step further in the learning process. Even after making a mistake – or a blunder in a game – we still can succeed. What is really important is to overcome that psychological wall and grow stronger from every failure.

Do you still remember your most important tournaments or games?

Yes, definitely! After 25 years in this profession, I have a lot of games and tournaments that I would classify as important, because I believe that they all somehow flow together in the end, but one stands out: the Women’s World Championship U12, which was played here in Spain, in Valencia. I remember winning my penultimate game against Humpy Koneru.

 

After this win, my family and I calculated that I could finish third if I drew my last game. I no longer had a chance to finish first of second but still could win bronze. In my last game I had a position that objectively was pretty equal but I had the initiative and was confident that I could win. However, as planned, I nevertheless decided to offer a draw.

At first, I was very happy with this decision, but that changed quickly when a Russian girl  – whom I had defeated some rounds before! – won her last game and caught up to me. Unfortunately, we had somehow miscalculated the tiebreak points and in the end she finished third, not me.

Can you imagine how frustrated I was! I only was twelve and I didn’t even try to win because I had thought a draw would be enough. It’s different if you try and you don’t succeed, but in this game I didn’t even try. That was the moment I really learned to deal with my frustrations, and I’m certain that this game helped me to win a lot of other games and to achieve a lot. It is funny that one of my most important games isn’t a great win but this game indeed taught me a lot.

It also helped me in later tournaments. For example, in round five at the European Women’s Championship in Romania in 2016 I had a winning position but was short of time and lost. It was a dramatic and bitter loss, but thanks to the support of my family and friends and because of my experiences after my "bronze medal game" I was able to calm myself and to focus again. The tournament was far from over, and giving up was not an option. I recovered and in the last six rounds scored 5.5/6.

Did your style change and develop over the course of your career?

I’ve been playing for many years now, and I believe you go through phases. Moreover, as you grow up your personality changes and you see this reflected on the board. However, I still think that my playing style didn’t change that much over the years.

My first trainer – who fueled my passion for chess – always said that tactics were my biggest weakness. I could calculate tactics but I did not not like tactical positions. I have always preferred to play a positional game. I also liked to have a lot of space to attack – those were the positions I was looking for when I started playing.

Unfortunately, I was never able to adopt a tactical style like Carlsen had when he started to play. That was really never my style, but I saw an important advance in my career when I started studying the games of Botvinnik and Kasparov. Getting acquainted with the outstanding concepts of their games, like always finding the best field for your pieces, to use them all, etc., helped to improve my level significantly.

So yes, at the beginning I had a positional style, but of course with time and the experience I gained, I was keen on learning more. Here, my personality – I’ve always been very curious – and the training with El Divis (David Martinez) helped me. He is a great theoritician and has given me a lot of confidence in my openings.

Thanks to preparing with him, I often was able to play lines and variations I had not known anything about before. I stayed up studying until 3 am, but the next day I played them successfully. This helped me to have more confidence in my game and I was more open to try out new things without any fear.

I suppose this naturally provoked a change in my style. Here's a nice anecdote: I had a childhood friend who was also a chess player. Later, when we were adults, he started to train a group of young players and I played against some of them.

Later I asked him what he thought about my games, and he told that he was amazed how much I attacked. He only knew my positional style from my beginnings and was so surprised!

Despite the ongoing pandemic you had the opportunity to play some over-the-board chess at the third edition of the Salamanca Chess Festival that was held in February 2021. You faced strong players such as former World Champion Veselin Topalov, the eventual winner of the event, Alexei Shirov, Elisabeth Paehtz and Almira Skripchenko, and others. How did you experience this tournament?

It was the second year in a row that I’ve been invited to play in this tournament in Salamanca. The festival is still young but it already is a recognized event on a national and international level, and I was very happy to have the chance to compete in it again. Moreover, I don’t get to play against such strong and experienced players every day, and that also made the tournament very interesting.

When I first played at the festival, I was very nervous, and didn’t know what to expect but in the end it was a wonderful experience. I particularly remember how I won a complicated and fierce game against Hou Yifan – it made me really happy.

 

Sabrina Vega Gutiérrez during her game against Veselin Topalov in Salamanca

This year, I was very motivated and ready to have a good time. I was also pregnant and had something more to look forward to. The games weren’t easy at all, but that’s also an important aspect of chess: to grow with challenges!

It was a very nice experience again. Salamanca is a beautiful city, and its university and other educational institutions support chess. To feel that while walking through the city has been extremely enjoyable.

You also gave a lecture during the festival and talked about the "Current situation of women in chess, a mixed sport that promotes gender equality". When did you realize that you wanted to share your knowledge and your experience in conferences like this?

I think, what I can contribute best is indeed my experience and the knowledge I had the chance to gain over the years. I was lucky to start playing competitively when I was young, and I have been more or less through every phase there is: It started as a game, then it became one of my favorite hobbies, then a great ambition and finally my profession.

Having the chance to transmit this experience and everything that I have learned playing chess – not only from the game but also from everything in between, how it felt, how it was for me, what were my thoughts – is really important to me. I have never believed that there’s only one right way to do things, but if I can at least explain how to improve some critical aspects in chess, I’m happy. It’s all about sharing and communicating with people who are interested in knowing more about this journey.

You are a role model for women chess players in Spain. Have you seen a positive change in the popularity of chess during the pandemic, when more and more people played online and Netflix released "The Queen’s Gambit"? 

To be honest, the term "role model" sometimes still overwhelms me, but I’m happy if I can help and give advice in the different stages of a chess career, especially in the beginning and during the teenage years, as that is the moment when a lot of girls quit to play.

I think there was a positive chess wave during the pandemic. It became apparent that computers and the internet are nowadays nearly indispensable for chess players, and how much it can help us to keep the communication with each other.

Also, chess is a good choice if you think about the many possibilities people had to entertain and to distract themselves during the lockdown in the pandemic. Almost all over-the-board tournaments came to a halt, but there were a lot of online events, and even some top tournaments. I think, we made the best out of the situation.

I believe a lot of people were motivated to return to chess (if they have ever left it) and it was a good time for people who didn’t know how to play chess to start with it. As I said, I think that chess really was one of the best ways to entertain ourselves during the lockdowns.

The series "The Queen’s Gambit" started a real boom. I think, chess is a really precious sport, and the fact that this is so little recognized in our society saddens me a lot; I think chess deserves much more appreciation. It is true that the media covers it more than it did some years ago, but there is still more that can be done. As I said before, I think chess needs marketing and in my opinion, "The Queen’s Gambit" here was extremely helpful. In a charming way it showed a wide audience the many benefits of the game, and probably awakened some interest in the game.

This year, you started to stream this project has been very warmly welcomed by the Spanish online community. Can you tell us a bit more this project?

We started this project recently, and we are still trying out new things, and we also had a little break because I was pregnant, but in general it has been very nice. It was mainly a consequence of the pandemic that I let some of my friends persuade me to try it.

I’ve always been a person who cares a lot about personal communication and seeing my opposite face to face, and to keep in touch, was certainly a very good experience for me. I have to admit that before I only used the computer to prepare and analyze my games, but it has been a really great experience and the welcome was indeed very friendly.

I first saw it as an experiment that I was ready to give a chance and now I enjoy it a lot. Whenever we can, we work together, we have a guest or simply set up an interesting position to commentate and analyze all together. At the end of the day, I like seeing it as an informal reunion of people who share a passion and who meet to have a good time. As if if we all would meet for a coffee and a chat.

You recently became a mother for the first time. Do you have any ideas of how you’d like your child to approach chess? Would you like it if he even chooses it as a profession one day? Do you think there’s a perfect age for children to start learning how to play chess?

That’s a really good question… I think I’d love it, yes. I deeply believe in chess and its benefits, and in that sense I would of course like it if my son showed some interest in chess. But I think it’s very important that children develop this interest on their own, I always try to make that very clear in my conferences: the little ones are the ones that should want to play and to learn chess, it’s of no use if the adults force them into chess.

In my case, I’ll try to set up some chess boards in the house, and I prepare for my games in front of him, things like that, and hope that it’ll work (laughs). It would really be very nice if he asked me one day to teach him the game.

I think particularly the first years, in which children come into contact with chess are very lovely. During this time chess is a game like all the others, it is entertainment, fun, but also a very useful pedagogical tool. My goal as a mother is to give him access to as much information and experiences as he needs to be able to grow up freely and to make his own decisions. If I manage to do that, then I’ll be satisfied. 

I think there are a lot of people who are better informed than me about the "perfect age" for kids to start playing chess, but I think the general opinion is that from the age of three children can approach the game in a playful manner, e.g. by coloring pieces on paper, touching and playing a bit with them as if they were just a toy.

With five children are often capable of understanding some more complex aspects of the game, e.g. simple tactics. I know children from my chess environment who at the age of four or five were already capable of setting up positions in the computer. The games they play are obviously very simple, but at least they play.

But everyone is different and every brain grows, works and progresses at distinct speeds. Thus, it is important to give children space and time to let them find out if they want to start with chess and if yes, how far they want to go.

If you could right now change or improve something in the chess world, what would it be?

I’d probably change some aspects that I think need change the most; some of them are already in progress, but what I really miss is the recognition of chess outside of the chess world (there are still a lot of stereotypes about chess and chessplayers) and the acceptance of its benefits in every area in our society in general. 

In the chess world, I still see a limited visibility of women’s chess. I think that helpful tools to improve this and to listen more to female players have been provided, but it still needs to be further supported and improved. I also think that women's chess could be supported more.

What concerns the chess community in general, I think it would be lovely if more people had the chance to dedicate themselves 100% to chess and to make an adequate living from it. I see that the FIDE also supports this goal but I think that it is first of all crucial to create chances and opportunities.

Thank you very much for your time! The ChessBase team and I wish you all the best for your future endeavors.

The interview was conducted via Zoom and Tatiana Flores then transcribed it and translated it into English.

 


Tatiana Flores was born in Andorra in 1998 and moved to Germany with her family when she was 14. She works as a chess journalist, poet and multilingual author. In addition to chess, she is also passionate about literature and music.
Discussion and Feedback Join the public discussion or submit your feedback to the editors


Discuss

Rules for reader comments

 
 

Not registered yet? Register

adbennet adbennet 7/29/2021 05:11
Thank you for the interview with IM Vega. Please ChessBase three things: (1) There is no byline. At the top it says "by" but after is blank. (2) Update Ms. Vega's player profile picture -- the one that can be seen (or not) in the games against Humpy Koneru and Hou Yifan is simply too dark! I can't see her at all. (3) Can we have a link to her new online project? My Spanish is hopelessly weak but it could still be entertaining.
Alexsander43 Alexsander43 7/26/2021 08:27
Bacana, uma mulher de valor com certeza.
1