LEE’S SUMMIT, Mo. — The only African American in the Missouri Chess Hall of Fame lives here in the Kansas City area.
In the 1970s and 1980s, Zeb Fortman II rose quickly as a champion in the chess world at a time when very few Black men played competitively.
He was a few points away from becoming a master when he retired from competitive play in 1989. But he believes the obstacles he faced along the way made him a true master at what he does now: teaching chess to future generations of champions.
Five days a week, Fortman teaches chess in six different schools. He’s a master teacher in the after-school chess program that local nonprofit KC Linc offers.
Fortman said he learned to play as a kid, but it wasn’t easy at first.
“I decided I wasn’t going to play football,” he said. “I still had this competitive edge, and somebody invited me to join the chess team senior year. And I was the worst player on the team when I first started. By the end of the year, I was the best player in the city.”
He found school to be mostly memorizing and regurgitating facts, but chess let him express his own ideas and test them. And his ideas, at least, weren’t black or white.
“For the first time, I could meet someone on a level field where things were fair, where wrong was punished,” Fortman said.
But it wasn’t. He was often the only African American at tournaments and faced discrimination and racism as his success grew.
“I played on the team to represent the United States against Russia in the Glenwood Manor,” Fortman said. “I was the highest qualified person to play on the team, but they said they couldn’t have an African American on the first board, so I had to play second board.”
Sometimes he even feared for his life.
“I played in a tournament in 1972 — Winnetonka Open — and I had tied for first place,” Fortman said. “It was so hostile I was afraid of not getting out of there with my life.”
After he retired from competition chess and an engineering career, Fortman started to teach. From exclusive schools to the inner city, he builds champions.
“I’ve taught kindergarten national champions and high school national champions and all in between,” he said.
As his students start to win tournaments, their growing confidence transforms them.
“Just to see that change a child’s life like that, it’s just amazing what can happen,” Fortman said.
He believes in taking a different approach to teaching.
“Most people teach chess memorization and regurgitation, just like in school,” Fortman said. “I don’t teach that. I teach people how to think, and I use chess as a vehicle to teach them how to think.”
His students learn to concentrate, focus and find multiple creative ways to solve problems and achieve goals.
“Because once they learn how to think, they can apply those same thinking principles in their life and their academics,” Fortman said.
He said winning at chess can also help them win at life.
“That gives children a tremendous pride and a good feeling about themselves,” he said.
And Fortman said pairing those skills with old fashioned hard work sets them up to succeed.
“That’s what I love about chess,” he said. “You get out of it what you put into it, that if you work harder than the other person, you’re probably going to win.”
Find out more about the Linc chess program for kids in Kansas City here or about private chess lessons with Fortman here.