The Father of High School Chess in Illinois is My Dad

Mike and Betsy directing in Dallas at a high school national in early 2000.A Daughter’s Memories and Her Father’s Words

I grew up in the chess world. I was taught the game by my father, Mike Zacate, a High School Science and Math teacher, when I was six years old. Though I didn’t take to chess like my brother, I loved the pieces and played all kinds of games with them. When I was in junior high school, I spent many weekends tagging along and than waiting for my father to finish directing chess tournaments so we could do something together afterwards. It was during this time that my father realized I was old enough to be useful and he started to putting me to work. A smart move on his part, as I often ran out of homework to do before his directing duties were over, and that left him stuck with a bored kid anxious to leave on his hands. It was while I was helping him that I began to understand that my father was an especially important figure in Illinois chess.

Zacate learned how to pair tournaments in the late 1960s by Illinois Chess Association (ICA) co-founder Frank Skoff (founders include Helen and Jim Warren and Jim Brotsos), who went on to serve as President of the United States Chess Federation. During the 1970s Helen Warren started a correspondence chess organization, and Jim Brotsos became involved with the Industrial Chess League. As such, the ICA needed more help, and Zacate stepped up to volunteer as the ICA Bulletin editor, a role he held for a few years.

The 1970s saw the rise in the interest of chess in America, as a result of Bobby Fisher's fame. The ICA provided on-camera interviews and analysis during Fisher’s historic match on WTTW-TV Chicago. It was about this time that Richard Verber became more than just a player in Chicago chess and took over the running of the Chicago Chess Club. Verber established regular tournaments, and brought in well-to-do patrons who underwrote major national and international chess figures to give simuls in Chicago. Those players were often “loaned” to other Chicago area clubs while they were here. Zacate was involved in this activity by directing tournaments and driving around VIPs.

Mike Zacate and Walter Brown directing in the 80s or 70sShould I ever need a little reality check as to my own connection to chess history, my father has always been near to keep things in perspective. I had one such reality check in 2009 after I returned home from the US Championships. I was impressed with GM Larry Christiansen, whom I don’t remember having met before. Christiansen isn’t only a talented player but a fun and friendly guy. I asked my father if he had ever meant Christiansen before. He sighed at me and said, “Yes, I meant Larry a long time ago when he came to Chicago for a simul Verber hired him to give. I was the one who drove Larry around.” He went on to explain that I likely had met Christiansen before as a child helping my out during major tournaments like the US Open where Christiansen would have played. Zacate had his first national directing job at the 1972 US Open hosted in Chicago. Tim Redman and Verber were chief TDs and Zacate was an assistant along with Garrett Scott. Zacate recalled, “Garrett and I agreed that we worked harder than any other assistants at that event and both learned a lot about pairings, especially large events.” While Zacate continued on to expand chess in high schools, Scott went on to foster the growth of chess in elementary schools and clubs down state.

Not only was the 1972 US Open prime training ground for Zacate as a TD but it served as his initiation into chess politics. At that time the ICA was still a private foundation and appointed USCF delegates. Zacate explained: “At the last minute (to get another 'controlled' vote), I was made a delegate. I was a delegate for many years after that and attended meetings with Walter Brown in Phoenix, and Lincoln (Nebraska), where USCF was restructured. Also, at the Lincoln meeting I moved for a $2 scholastic membership with Verber’s help, especially influencing Goichberg, it was passed. Later in the Columbus (Ohio) I successful led a defense against those opposed to the $2 membership.” Zacate said that the meetings in Fairfield, Virginia were memorable as the activities included the passing of the first smoking restrictions at tournaments and Ed Edmonson was induced to retire as Executive Director.

Enrique Kiki Huerta, Mike Zacate and Tim Just in the back room at a national scholastic championship (photo courtesy Kenneth Sloan)Also during the course of these meetings, a more formalized process for certifying and ranking tournament directors was developed. A half dozen individuals were considered worthy of the title National Tournament Director (NTD). Among them were Illinois’s own Frank Skoff and Richard Verber. Zacate was appointed as an NTD the following year. I myself earned the NTD title a couple of years ago. I shared the test questions with my father when my exam was returned, and we had a grand time debating the answers to the questions.

In 1978, Zacate founded the Illinois Junior Chess Foundation, a scholastic chess organization. He also ran for President of the ICA and served for two years. During that time, he rewrote and passed an expanded ICA Constitution and bylaws. Zacate also became a member of the USCF Rules Committee in 1978. The Committee that year was charged with writing the first revision of the USCF rule book since the Harkness “blue book.” The committee didn't complete the work, but much of its papers were referred to when it was finally done. When Redman, a former Illinois High School Chess player, edited the third edition of the USCF rules, he incorporated some of the ideas and structure Zacate at put into the Illinois High School Association (IHSA).

Mike Zacate with Evergreen Park HS Chess Team circa 1975The IHSA Team State Chess Championship tournament was founded by Zacate, and I personally feel it was my father’s greatest chess accomplishment. The idea for the tournament was born in the late 1960s. Zacate had taken his students from Evergreen Park High School, where he taught, to compete in the Individual/Team State Championships held at Gomper's Park Field House in Chicago. The tournament was held over Christmas break and run by Frank Skoff and Peter Wolff. Zacate said, “I wasn't satisfied with the way the team champion was determined. It didn't really seem like a team, having individual pairings with players from same team all over the place, combining their results for a team score.” He shared his opinion with Coach McLamarrah (Rockford Guilford). “McLamarrah and I agreed that having our-team-against-your-team was a better way to have a team championship. Skoff and Wolff said such events (ala the Chess Olympics) used such a four-player team format. While they had no interest in holding such events they challenged us to get them started.”

McLamarrah held a team versus team event in January of 1968 and shared how it went with Zacate, who then felt emboldened to under take a state-wide event. After talking with his superintendent and David Fry of the IHSA, the Northeastern Illinois High School State Championship Tournament was formulated and held in the Spring of 1968. Zacate explains, “The tournament couldn't be state wide as IHSA had travel restrictions on school days then and I had to have IHSA sanction to hold an event involving more than 2 schools then. By the next year (1969), IHSA Board of Directors had lifted the travel restriction as unnecessary due to the recognizing the travel time were less with the increasing completion of the interstate highway system. There was still the restriction of not being able to start on a school day before a certain time. In order to have the IHSA sanctions the tournament which was required.” Not being able to start the round early on a Friday meant the things would go very late into the night, Zacate explained, “Remember all time controls in those days were the number of moves in a certain time, followed by additional time controls until the game ended. There was no such thing as a final time control.”

Zacate continued to host and direct the tournament, until the IHSA took it over. For several years the tournament was held at Evergreen Park High School. The second gym was opened to teams to allow them to camp over night, and in the morning the locker rooms were available for showers. Finally, in 1975 everything came together and the first IHSA Team Chess Championship was held in at Rantoul High School. Today this tournament is the largest fixed-board team chess tournament in the world and boasts the biggest teams, with eight players competing together side by side.

I have worked or played in the tournament each year (with one exception) since I was 13 years old. I have gone from filling in wall charts to taking the position of lead TD on the floor. I have seen first-hand all of the joy (and tears) that chess can bring. I have seen and felt the pride that comes with being on a chess team and this is what motivated Zacate to make sure this tournament happened and continues today. He desired that all high school students have the chance to experience being part of a team. Zacate himself was active in sports as a student and observed that those with physical limitations or who weren’t talented in athletics missed out on the team experience. He envisioned the high school chess team as a cure for this exclusion. Prior to the final round of the 2010-11 tournament, I had the honor to introduce my father to the crowd of some twelve hundred people when he announced his retirement from the event.

As Zacate said goodbye to the IHSA this year, he said hello to the Illinois Elementary School Association (IESA). With his guidance and the direction of Associate Executive Director Nicole Schaefbauer, the IESA held its own State Chess Championship for seventh and eighth grade teams (fifth and sixth graders could be included). In this inaugural year, 45 schools participated (about 300 individual players), a small amount compared the the 130 teams in the IHSA tournament this year, but very much the same as the first year the Zacate ran inaugural state wide high school team tournament which means the future is bright for the IESA.

Matthew Zacate, Betsy Dynako, and Mike and Betty Zacate (photo-by-Stephen-Dynako)Illinois has a lot of be proud of in contributing to the history of chess in the United States, including being where the USCF was founding by people including the Warrens. I am proud to count my father among those from Illinois who have served to enrich our state and country through chess. This August during the US Open in Orlando, Florida, Mike Zacate will be presented with the Outstanding Career Achievement award by the USCF as a result of a nomination from the ICA. I am a very proud daughter and grateful chess player.

Thanks Dad,
Love Betsy




An article about Zacate and high school chess published in a local paper in 1979.