Gage Park Chess Team

Evergreen Park, Illinois

When Chicagoans hear the names Palermo’s, Giordano’s, Chesden’s, and Falco’s, pizza comes to mind. Delicious Chicago-style pizza. My thoughts turn to chess. Pizza always reminds me of my days as a high school athlete at Gage Park High School. Okay, I didn’t actually play any sports that involved physical activity at Gage Park, but I did letter in chess and our chess team was awarded athletic letters the athletes award ceremony. For some reason unbeknownst to me, chess was even covered in Sports Illustrated back then.

Dr. D. plays Jim Harmon as Ted Rafacz watches.

Anyway, I played chess on the chess team at Gage Park High School with Jim Harmon, Vito Vitkauskas, Dave Johnson, Bill Rozivics, Ted Rafacz, and Nick Polo. We were coached by Mr. Crowe, who also coached the hockey team. I suppose tenacity and mental toughness is required for both chess and hockey, so Mr. Crowe was the perfect coach for both sports. I think he liked the hockey team better, though. He used to brag about how smart the hockey team was. And he would tell us every time a hockey player got a college scholarship. The chess team was a bunch of slackers by comparison. One time, Mr. Crowe complained because two chess players were suspended and couldn’t play in an important chess match. Bill was suspended for low grades, even though he could recite the atomic chart from memory. And I was suspended for fighting. As a member of the chess team, bullies liked to pick on me, but I always fought back. I didn’t know you could get suspended for self-defense. To school officials, fighting was fighting and that warranted a suspension.

But back to the pizza. In order to inspire us to play better chess, Mr. Crowe promised to take us out for pizza every time we won a chess match. If we lost, we had to treat him to a steak dinner. We complained that this wasn’t fair because steak was more delicious and more expensive than pizza. But since he was the coach, we finally agreed with the arrangement reluctantly because he insisted that he was buying a meal for seven chess players while we were only treating one person.

I don’t remember how many matches we won or how many times Mr. Crowe treated us to pizza, but I do remember the one time we lost the match and we went to Chesden’s on Archer Avenue for Mr. Crowe’s steak dinner. We barely had enough to pay for his steak dinner, so we didn’t order pizza for ourselves. But Mr. Crowe was so kind as to keep asking the waitress to keep replenishing the bread baskets. All we ate was bread and water while Mr. Crowe savored a juicy t-bone steak. He insisted that he was teaching us to become better chess players!

The other memorable event of this day was the snowball fight afterward. As we were walking to Mr. Crowe’s car, we started throwing snowballs at each other. Since we were always very competitive, we chose up sides and began battling in earnest. Suddenly, Ted said that he lost his school ring while throwing a snowball. We must have looked for that ring for about an hour in the snow, in the dark, before we finally found it.

So whenever I think of pizza, my thoughts turn to my days on the Gage Park Chess Team!



I can't believe my mother let me grow my hair this long!
I can’t believe my mother let me grow my hair this long!

When I was in high school, I met my friend Jim Harmon in physics class. We really didn’t learn much physics because Mr. Wlecke the teacher didn’t really teach much in the way of physics. He would sometimes make a half-hearted attempt at teaching us something, but then he would lose his focus and stop. My friend Jim always carried a chess set wherever he went. So one day, after Mr. Wlecke inexplicably stopped teaching, Jim challenged me to a game of chess. I accepted, but explained that I only knew how the pieces moved and that I wasn’t very good. We played anyway and Jim won–of course. From then on, we always played chess in physics class and at lunch sometimes. Once Mr. Wlecke missed class and the substitute teacher was surprised to see Jim and I playing chess in class. I told him we played chess in class everyday, but he didn’t believe me. I slowly but surely improved my game of chess. Jim later talked me into joining the chess team. I later learned that Jim was the best player on the chess team.

I became obsessed by chess. I loved playing on the chess team! I studied the chess books that the chess coach Mr. Crowe had lent us. I even bought chess books of my own. When I decide to dedicate myself to something, I go way above and beyond the call of duty! I really improved as a chess player. I wanted nothing less than to be first board on the chess team. Eventually, I played well enough to play first board, but then I lost my game at the match and I never played first board again. This failure only drove me to study chess even more diligently!

Soon after joining the Gage Park H.S. chess team, we went to the La Salle Hotel downtown to play in chess tournaments sponsored by the Chicago Chess Club. I really wanted to win a chess trophy. All my brothers had various trophies for different sports, but I was the only one in the family without a trophy of any kind. So I spent every free moment studying and breathing chess. I won more and more of my practice games. I even beat my uncle at chess even after he stopped letting me win. One day, I did win my division in a tournament. I was the 1974 Northern Illinois High School Novice Unrated Champion! I know this is the exact title because I’m looking at the trophy as I write this. However, as luck would have it, the trophies were not delivered to the tournament on time because the trophy factory had burned down the previous week. These eerie coincidences have happened to me throughout my life. I’m used to them now. None of my friends went to that tournament, so no one believed me that I had actually won a trophy. Especially my mother! She almost didn’t give me the $6 for the then astronomical entry fee to enter the tournament. I was told I would receive my trophy in the mail within four weeks, by February of 1974. Well, it didn’t come until May! And then, finally everyone believed me that I had actually won a trophy. And it was bigger than any of the trophies that my brothers had won. Even my mother had to believe me then!