In memoriam: James Robert Michalak (1941 - 2017)

by NM Len Weber

The Illinois chess scene has lost another longtime favorite.  In December, we lost James "Jimbo" Michalak, after a long health battle.  This writer first met Jim at the Homewood Flossmoor Park District Chess Club (defunct in 1984).  A "Fischer boomer", Jim reached over 1800 USCF, winning several notable prizes, before leaving the tournament scene in the mid-1980s.  In more recent years, "Jimbo" spent many warm weather days as a regular at the chess haunts in Chicago, including North Avenue Beach, where he taught lessons, played all comers, hustled and got hustled, earned wins against experts and masters, and traded fearless wit and clever barbs with even the most ferocious patrons.

After his death, this writer had several phone conversations with Jim's son Dave, and learned some very interesting things about the life of Jim that much of the chessworld may not, like me, had much inkling of.

Gary & the Knight Lites, 1963. (Photo courtesy David Michalak)
Jimbo was a rock star!  Okay, maybe not exactly like that.  But in 1962, the early days of rock, Jim was the drummer for a band called Gary & The Knight Lites.  The band was formed in Cicero, Illinois, where Jim lived, and was fronted by Gary Loizzo.  The band had a few modest hits (Youtube it! "Gary & the Knight Lites; Will You Go Steady With Me") before Jim, believing the band's run had played out, went on to greener pastures in the business world.  That's Jim on the far right at drums!  The Knight Lites were ahead of their time in 1962 by having one of the earliest multiracial bands.

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Gary & the Knight Lites, 1963. (Photo courtesy David Michalak)

Jim's music career had to take a back seat when he sought, and achieved, employment from this newfangled computer company called International Business Macines.  Yes, IBM.  If you saw the movie "Hidden Figures", you get an idea of what IBM was selling back then.  These were those large, (then) state of the art cutting edge computer mainframes such as those used by NASA, and Jim was in the very highest rung among the sales staff at IBM for many years.  Eventually Jim retired from IBM and founded a company called Chicago Business Machines.

Those that knew "Jimbo" knew him to have a rapid-fire intellect which could show itself in chess and in banter!  Jim taught the game to generations of students, including his own children, two of which (Robert and David) were state champions in their categories, as well as anchors of the then powerful Tinley Park H.S. Chess Team.

Jim's son Dave related numerous stories about how Jim, with his movie star looks and remarkable people skills, often seemed to coincidentally run into celebrities, have meals with them, conversing with them on a personal level.  Maybe they knew he was once a famous rock drummer?!

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"Jimbo" as a teenager. (Photo courtesy David Michalak)

Jim was well read on many subjects, and could be counted on to be well informed of news, current events, and practical subjects alike.  Jim owned over 300 chess books, and unlike many, he actually read them, as evidenced by notes he left in them in his handwriting. 

This writer recalls Jim's banter, including such classics as "I may not be a master, but I am the master of YOU, Sir!"  (Jim constantly included formalities in his banter, even as he got sharp with the sharpest, addressing the opponent as "Sir", or "Mister".)

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James Robert Michalak, chessplayer, musician, businessman, teacher, husband, father. (Photo courtesy David Michalak)

A man for all seasons, a competitive blitz chess and analysis session with GM Walter Browne, breakfast with boxing legend Sonny Liston, brief rock fame, a successful pioneering career with IBM, family man, friend of the famous and humble alike, Jim was all these and much more.  You can never be replaced, Jimbo, and we will miss you!