Quique Setién: "Feelings leave a stronger mark than results"

by Jesus Boyero
1/27/2020 – A new trainer for the new year. FC Barcelona, one of the strongest football squads in the world, recently appointed Enrique Setién as their new head coach. Known as 'Quique', Setién has a tough task ahead, as he is expected to succeed at the Spanish "La Liga", the "Copa del Rey" and the Champions League. But why are we talking about this? Has ChessBase turned into a football site? No. Besides being a highly successful coach, Setién is a huge chess fan and, in fact, quite a strong player. JESÚS BOYERO interviewed the Cantabrian back in 2016, focusing on his relation with the royal game. | Photos: Jesús Boyero / El Desmarque

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An interview

For Quique Setién, chess does not merely serve as an intellectual pose. In fact, calling the game a hobby does not do justice to an activity that provoked him sleepless nights when he was younger. The head coach of "Unión Deportiva Las Palmas" had a long and successful career as a footballer, even getting to represent Spain at the 1986 World Cup in Mexico. A FIDE-rated player, he does not boast about flashy checkmates or memorable victories over the chessboard. Tomorrow, against Real Madrid, a difficult match awaits.

With a 2055 Elo rating, achieved during your active years, you could have been selected to represent 51 countries at the Chess Olympiad in Baku.

(Laughs) Yes, that's what I tell the football players. If you had been born in such and such country, you would have gone international. But here you are not even selected [to the national team].

Las Palmas is a chess land. Sabrina Vega is the current European vice-champion, and authorities pay attention to the game. Have you been able to make the most of the favourable conditions? Or football leaves no time for such things?

Honestly, I don't have the time. Recently I played against Sabrina Vega and, besides a tournament in Vecindario, during a down week, I can barely play. I did play some rapid games against a couple of fans — the president of Las Palmas Chess Federation and the event's organizer.

Who taught you to play chess?

My dad, when I was a kid. But I didn't really understand the game nor got hooked on it — although I did alternate between football and chess — until I met some friends from Santander who played on a daily basis and at a good level. Chencho, Barquín and Sergio were part of the "Torres Blancas" Club — I'm still subscribed to that club.

You belong to the group of people that enjoyed the 1972 Fischer v Spassky duel in Reykjavik while growing up. Did you, like grandmaster Ljubomir Ljubojevic, consider to replace chess for football?

It was an alternative, but I recognized that my playing ability was limited. Quickly enough, I noticed that I didn't have a special talent. Despite my enthusiasm, I needed a lot of effort to make progress, and playing football did not leave a lot of free time. I've always enjoyed chess, I still do, but I would never be a professional. Back in the day, I woke up in the middle of the night, before a football game, thinking about variations. I spent many hours playing chess, and that couldn't be good. Rest was obligatory and I had already chosen my path. It took a lot of will power but I managed to disconnect and take it easy. Having sleepless nights thinking about a move is a thing of the past.   

You were known as 'The chess player' during your years in Atlético and the national team. Who did you play against and who did you infect with the 'venom' of chess?

While I was playing for "Racing" (eight seasons, from 1977 to 1985 and from 1992 to 1996) I played sporadically with some teammates, especially with Pedro Alba. Later on, in "Atlético" (1985 to 1988), with Julio Salinas, although he was not as hooked on the game as I was. Back then, a club executive brought me a Chess Challenger from the United States, one of the first computers that could play at a decent level — I took it with me to the pre-match meetings. While playing for "Logroñés" (1988 to 1992), I gave simultaneous exhibitions at my place — I faced Lopetegui, Poyatos, García Pitarch and Linde in parallel.

Do you think chess could help Lopetegui?

I'm not sure whether he keeps playing...but he surely does. I should add that in Logroño I was one of the oldest players in the team, so the younger guys sat down and played almost obliged.

Who made you suffer the most on the chessboard?

At first, Pedro Alba. I remember I beat my brains out while he played and read the newspaper at the same time. He was really good. Later, when I regularly attended the Torres Blancas Club, our playing strengths evened out.

Enrique Setien, Anatoly Karpov

During a simultaneous exhibition given by Anatoly Karpov at Seville's Lope de Vega Theatre on December 19th, 2018 | Photo: El Desmarque

What has chess given you?

An important way to unwind during tense moments. While in trouble, it's always served me as a tool to disconnect, because life is not all football. At different times it has been very helpful. There are aspects of the game that push you in the right direction — for example, to take some time to reflect. When I was younger I was very impulsive. As years go by, you come to terms with the advantages of thinking in the long run, of looking at things with a wider perspective, of understanding that, no matter how settled your opinions are, taking a couple of seconds to think it through is always worth it. In chess, it's always a good idea to place your hands below the table in order to control the impulse that is pushing you to move a piece mechanically. That small pause has served me well.

What similarities are there between football and chess?

As many as you wish to find. I don't know if this is comparable — but pieces need to be well coordinated. You can't place them loosely. My main concept as a coach and as a chess player is to attack orderly while controlling the rear. You can be an offensive player, but you always need to control what's going on on your own camp, without leaving pieces unattended, in a synchronized way. The same happens in football when you have a coordinated team, in which all the players are connecting, a useful association...When I was younger I ran wild — always forward, pushing my pawns, not keeping an eye on what I had left behind, forgetting about defence; then you got what you deserved.

Grandmaster Miguel Najdorf used to say that he could figure out the character of a player by looking at their first moves in the opening.

The same happens to me in football. When I see a footballer on the field, I know how he behaves off the field.

Do you play chess with the footballers you train?

Raúl Lizoáin, who just started playing three months ago, loves it. We play on the plane. He solves chess problems and I help him. He knew how to play and learned from his father, who is blind, with a special chessboard. I try to get some others hooked on the game, to keep them away from their cellphones. I hope I get to do it during the pre-match meetings. 

Bobby Fischer used to get sick when he lost a game. Has there been a loss in chess that hurt you more than a football match?

Yes. No football match ever — except when I was very young — has provoked as much tension as that which I felt when I played at the open tournaments in Benasque (1992 to 1994). My heart was pounding, and I was not even a professional — I was playing on the lower boards. Moreover, I travelled down there to get away from football — although I played friendly matches with the fans — and to breathe the mountain air of the Pyrenees, and nonetheless I suffered when I didn't play well. Losing a winning position during time trouble is very tough. And there are no excuses or a way to blame external factors.

Fischer represented chess at its best, like Cruyff's Dutch team from the 1974 World Cup. Is there more justice in chess than in football?

In football, the best doesn't always win. There are tendencies, but one can always lose a particular World Cup or European Championship. In chess, luck has a much smaller influence due to the competition formats. Nonetheless, the best team wins "La Liga". That's why I try to transmit feelings to my players, as related to results: feelings leave a stronger mark than results. When you lose after having played well, you take something out of the experience. When you play badly and you lose, nothing is left.

In an article published at "El Mundo", you compared Fischer with Maradona, insofar they both quit chess and football rather early. Were those two the greatest in their sports?

I think so, for the most part, until the arrival of Messi, in the case of football. Cruyff and Maradona were the greatest back in the day, when I had idols. They influenced me because they did things that are impossible to repeat. The Argentine quit early; Fischer became a ghost after the 1972 World Championship, and we could not enjoy his play any more. For over ten years, Messi has been the greatest every Sunday — he has a continuity that was never seen before.

What's more intimidating, to play at the Bernabéu or Nou Camp stadiums, or to face these set of Russians in chess: Karpov, Kasparov, Grischuk and Karjakin?

To play for the first time at the Bernabéu or the Nou Camp is a dream come true. Later on, it does not mean as much. The day I faced Kasparov or the time I played against Deep Blue Junior as a guest of IBM were exceptional. I enjoyed fighting those monsters — you can do it once.

The gods of chess created the middlegame to confuse mere mortals. What is there in football to beat the strongest rivals?

Enthusiasm! They can only be defeated with enthusiasm, taking advantage of a moment of clarity while they're relaxed thinking they can beat you easily.

Translation from Spanish: Carlos Colodro
Originally published on September 23rd, 2016 in Marca

Setién played against former world champion Vladimir Kramnik during a simultaneous exhibition in Barcelona back in 2002. 


In 2018, Setién paired up with Ángel Haro, the president of Real Betis, to face the recent winner of the Tata Steel Challengers David Antón in a clock simul. Each played with both colours and, needless to say, Antón won all four games.


Journalist. Writes a chess column for Marca, Spain's largest national daily sport newspaper.