Mike Zacate

This page is dedicated to the memory of Mike Zacate, the founding President of the ICCA, and the "Father of Illinois High School Chess."  His work over 50 years of his life laid the foundation of what became the IHSA State Chess Team Tournament and all of the teams, coaches, players, conferences, competitions, and tournaments that have become a part of that system.  This page is designed to be a living document with new memories, new thanks, and new memorbilia as the years move on.  All of the events, results, ratings of High School team chess were all made possible.  In a very real way, this entire website and organization are the result of his time, effort, and energy.  We thank you, Mike.

The Father of High School Chess in Illinois is My Dad

A Daughter’s Memories and Her Father’s Words

Mike and Betsy directing in Dallas at a high school national in early 2000
Mike and Betsy directing in Dallas at a high school national in early 2000

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 with them daily, often having them act out the operas my father played on his record player. When I was in junior high school, I spent many weekends hanging out at chess tournaments doing homework while waiting for my father to finish directing so we could go to dinner. It was during this time that my father realized I was old enough to truly be helpful and he started to train me to become a tournament director. A smart move on his part, as I often ran out of homework to do before his directing duties were over leaving him stuck with a bored kid on his hands. It was while I was helping him at chess tournaments that I began to understand that my father was an especially important figure in Illinois chess.

Mike Zacate’s introduction to directing chess tournaments was through Frank Skoff who taught him how to pair tournaments in the late 1960s. Skoff was a co-founder of the Illinois Chess Association (ICA) along with Helen and Jim Warren and Jim Brotsos.  Skoff would go 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 Skoff, the Warrens and Brotsos committed themselves to other chess activities the ICA needed more help, so Zacate stepped up to volunteer as the ICA Bulletin editor, a role he held for several years.

Thanks to Bobby Fisher's rise to fame, 1970s America saw a massive increase in the interest of chess. 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 chess player in Chicago as he took over the running of the Chicago Chess Club. Verber established regular tournaments and brought in patrons who underwrote the cost of bringing in major national and international chess figures to give simuls in Chicago. Those players were often “loaned” to other Chicago area clubs. Zacate supported his activity through directing tournaments and driving around VIPs.

Should 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 didn’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 when I helped (I ran results from the playing hall to the back room) during major tournaments like the US Open where Christiansen would have played. 

Mike Zacate and Walter Brown directing in the 80s or 70s
Mike Zacate and Walter Brown directing in the 80s or 70s

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 that 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 Columbus (Ohio) I successfully led a defense against those opposed to the $2 membership.” The $2 scholastic membership brought thousands of players under the age of 18 in the USCF.  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.

During 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, Richard Verber and Walter Brown. Zacate was appointed as an NTD the following year. I earned the NTD title in the modern way which includes progressing through different levels of director titles and passing exams. I shared the questions from the NTD test with my father after I returned my exam to the USCF. We had a grand time debating the answers to the questions.Anyone who was hung around a couple of tournament directors talking shop will have a very good idea of what our conversation was like. 

Enrique Kiki Huerta, Mike Zacate and Tim Just in the back room at a national scholastic championship (photo courtesy Kenneth Sloan)
Enrique Kiki Huerta, Mike Zacate and Tim Just in the back room at a national scholastic championship (photo courtesy Kenneth Sloan)

In 1978, Zacate founded the Illinois Junior Chess Foundation, a scholastic chess organization. He also successfully ran for President of the ICA and served for two years. During his tenure, he rewrote and passed an expanded ICA Constitution and bylaws. Zacate also became a member of the USCF Rules Committee in 1978. The Committee was charged with writing the first revision of the USCF rule book since the Harkness “blue book” was penned. 

Later the third edition of the USCF rules was edited by Tim Redman, a former Illinois high school chess player. Redmen incorporated ideas and structure that Zacate wrote for the Illinois High School Association into the USCF rules. In later years, Tim Just, a praised National Tournament Director and another Illinois resident edited several editions of the USCF Rules Book. 

The IHSA Team State Chess Championship tournament was founded by Zacate. I personally feel it is my father’s greatest chess accomplishment and earned him the title of the Father of High School Chess, in Illinois. The idea for the tournament was born in the late 1960s. Zacate took 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 took place over Christmas break run by Frank Skoff and Peter Wolff. Zacate remembered, “I wasn't satisfied with the way the team champion was determined. It didn't really seem like a team event as individual players from the same team were paired as individuals. The players did not sit together as a team. The team score was calculated by combining the individual results.” 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 events such as the Chess Olympics used a four-player fixed board 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 undertake 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 statewide as the IHSA had travel restrictions on school days then and I had to have an IHSA sanction to hold an event involving more than 2 schools.” In 1969, the IHSA Board of Directors lifted the travel restriction as they recognized that travel times were becoming shorter due to the increasing completion of the interstate highway system. Though one restriction was still in the way, the IHSA dictated how early an event could start on a school day.  “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 Northeastern Illinois High School State Championship Tournament, until the IHSA. For several years the tournament was held at Evergreen Park High School. The second gym was opened to teams to allow them to camp overnight. Locker rooms were available for showers. Finally, during the 1974-1975 school year everything came together, and the first IHSA Team Chess Championship was held 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.

Mike Zacate with Evergreen Park HS Chess Team circa 1975
Mike Zacate with Evergreen Park HS Chess Team January 23, 1978 Anxiously awaiting their match against Reavis, the Evergreen Park High School Chess Team poses for a portrait. From the Left:
Bottom Row: Scott Pirman, Tom Yurachett,  Coach Zacate, Tony Borzak. Middle Row: Kent Robinson, Pat Brown, Mark Kranner, Dan Roch. Top Row: Kevin Kowalczyk, Jeff Cieslewicz, Randy Stark, Kevin Clark, and Tom Simon.
Matthew Zacate, Betsy Dynako, and Mike and Betty Zacate (photo-by-Stephen-Dynako)
Matthew Zacate, Betsy Dynako, and Mike and Betty Zacate at a family gathering

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 Head Steward on the floor. I have seen first-hand all of the joy (and tears) that chess can bring. I have witnessed and personally experienced the pride that comes with being on a chess team. I adored my teammates.  The personal enrichment, not just the educational benefits, is what motivated Zacate to create this tournament and remain devoted to seeing it continue. 

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 and myself, 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 to the 130 teams in the IHSA tournament this year, but very a very similar number of players Zacate had when the inaugural statewide high school team tournament took place, which means the future is bright for the IESA.

Illinois has a lot to be proud of in contributing to the history of chess in the United States, including being where the USCF was founded. I am proud to count my father among those from Illinois who have served to enrich our state and country through chess. I am blessed to have co-founded the IESA State Chess Championship with my father. This August during the US Open in Orlando, Florida, Mike Zacate will be presented with the Outstanding Career Achievement award by the USCF, thanks in part to a nomination from the ICA. I am a very proud daughter and a grateful chess player.

Thanks Dad,

Love Betsy

Mike Zacate, 1982 Evergreen Park HS
1980-81 Evergreen Park HS Chess Team
1981-82 Evergreen Park HS Chess Team
Mike at an IHSA Seeding Meeting at Hinsdale Central HS, 2015
Mike Zacate, staff photo from St. Barbar's HS in Chicago
Chris Merli and Mike Zacate at the IHSA State Chess Team Tournament

Mike Zacate, The Father Of Illinois High School Chess, Passes Away

Scott Johnson - Monday, November 13, 2023

Mike Zacate, the father of high school chess in Illinois, passed away at his home in Palos Park Sunday morning (November 12, 2023) at the age of 83.

The former science teacher at Evergreen Park, St. Barbara, and Mt. Assisi high schools conducted the first statewide chess tournament at Evergreen Park in 1968. As the tournament grew in size, the Illinois High School Association took over sponsorship in 1974.  Zacate served as director of the state tournament every year through 2010, except for one year when he was ill. As recently as 2020 he continued to serve as a floor official.

Beyond his commitment to running the tournament, Zacate coached his own team for many years, and served as a mentor to countless coaches and tournament officials. The event he founded has grown into the largest team chess tournament in the world, with about 1,500 students from 128 teams competing every February in Peoria.

Zacate learned chess from his uncle John as a child in Springfield. He went to high school in Rockford, and during his days at Beloit College played the game competitively. But when he took a teaching job at Evergreen Park in 1965, chess was not on his mind. If Zacate had had his way, he would have opted for an assistant coach stipend in baseball, basketball, and football, but those were all spoken for. He started an astronomy club instead, but it attracted little interest. Then he discovered that the school had a chess club, sponsored by the head of the English department. When Zacate asked the sponsor if there was any room for an assistant, he was placed in charge of the club before the words were out of his mouth.

Zacate's first team competed in open tournaments and in dual matches against a handful of chess clubs from other schools. Soon he set up local tournaments for high school teams. In 1968 he inaugurated the statewide tournament, which featured a new twist. Team competition existed at traditional tournaments, but it was "team" in name only. At any point, teammates might be strewn anywhere throughout the event hall playing individual games.

Zacate changed all that. The format he promoted, which carries through to the present day in IHSA competition, involves five to eight players from each team, ordered by strength of play, lined up at a long competition table. The points assigned to each game vary, weighted by strength, and that was the beauty of the system. The weighting ensures that the best players from each team are matched against each other as they try to win the most valuable games for their team. But because points earned by less talented players are still required to win a team match, the development of every player on the chess squad, not just the best ones, is essential. Placing all the action at the same table reinforces the team concept as players are able to follow every game and cheer (silently, of course) for the teammates.

That is the reason that participation in the state tournament has grown almost every year. Since its inception it's estimated that as many of 30,000 Illinois high school students have competed in the tournament that Mike Zacate founded and nurtured. Very few of those students were from the elite group who sharpen their skills year-round in non-high school tournaments. Most of the students would not have played chess competitively but for the high school chess team. Some of the students had never played chess at all before being encouraged to join.

High school chess exists in a few other states, but nowhere does it match the depth and breadth of the programs in Illinois. Today more than 180 schools play chess competitively throughout the fall and winter. That is Mike Zacate's legacy.

Mike is survived by his son, Matthew, and daughter, Betsy, who has served as a chess official at many IHSA events. Mike's wife, Betty, died in 2022.

Mike Zacate, portrait


Thanks, Mike.  

Below are some collected thoughts that coaches and players have shared about Illinois chess and Mike's impact.

If you have thoughts to share, please send them to Secretary@ILChessCoach.org 

Mike Zacate, Stewarding at the 2020 IHSA State Chess Team Tournament

Thoughts from coaches...

Thoughts from players...