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.
Information about a memorial service will be posted here when it becomes available.