1966-72 Rapid Development
When the tide turned, it did so quickly. Not only did both Hoffmans and Coggeshall pledge to carry on, for one season at least, but also applications for membership came in from newly formed groups at Maldon and Essex University. Oddly enough, the University had long been regarded as a likely candidate for membership, but previous approaches had produced no indication of any chess activity. Now, suddenly, the players were there. Naturally, both applications were eagerly accepted.
The season 1966-67 was unquestionably the most significant in the League's entire history. In the preceding summer there had been doubt whether membership would be sufficient to enable a proper competition to be run, but the season had actually run with a record seven clubs competing, and in the following summer preparations were in hand for the formation of a second division as well as the admission of two more new clubs, namely Witham and Marconi. ln addition, representative matches had been played against Ilford Chess Club, at that time the strongest club in the County, and the Suffolk League, and match play rules had been comprehensively formulated to replace the somewhat brief and basic rules which had operated since the League was formed. Quite a transformation!
From then on the future of the League was assured, and apprehensions concerning survival were finally banished from mind. Though purely academic, it is interesting to speculate on what would have happened had events taken a different course in the summer of 1966. If neither Maldon nor Essex University had materialised, and both Coggeshall and Hoffmanns had withdrawn, could the three remaining clubs have ensured the League's survival? It is almost certain that competition between the three would have continued, for the players enthusiasm would have been sharpened by the outcome of the preceding season's championship where the clubs had been in such close contention. Perhaps each club would have met the others three, or even four, times a season rather than twice so as to expand the fixture programme. But would competition of this nature, which could hardly be described as a proper league, have continued for very long if no new blood had been forthcoming? It seems reasonable to suppose that enthusiasm would have declined in the face of a prolonged series of meetings between the same three opponents, for inevitably they would not have remained so well balanced in playing strength and results would have become predictable. Had this led to the discontinuation of organised competition, the belief that the area could not support league chess would have been firmly implanted in the minds of the principal characters, especially having regard to the demise of the Border League not long before, and it might have been a long while before anyone was ready to try again.
It is also valid to consider the situation from a different viewpoint by asking how enthusiastic a new club would have been to join a league having only three members, especially if that club happened to be in the south of the area and within reach of the greater variety and security offered by the Essex Chess League.
Such apprehensions may seem far-fetched when viewed from the haven of today's thriving activities, but they were real enough then. Nobody knew that the arrival of Essex University. Maldon, Marconi and Witham and those who followed was so soon to occur, but everyone was aware that organised club chess had never previously taken sufficient root so as to remain permanent in the area. In the minds of the committee of the day the League had, for a short while, stood on the very brink of what might easily have been an irreversible slide into oblivion.
This most eventful of seasons ended with Colchester winning back the championship. Not many people would have expected this to be the club's last triumph in the championship for several years to come for the team was certainly imposing, including as it did the powerful juniors Congdon, Buis and Rose. Tim Congdon was to go on to represent England in the Glorney Cup and later attain a grading of over 200. Unfortunately for Colchester, all three were destined to leave the area in pursuit of further education and only Mike Rose was to return, and then only for a short while. The club has rarely featured prominently in the first division since but has often done well in the second, especially in the early years of that competition.
Also, in that significant season of 1966/67, the League held its first general meeting since its formation. A proper constitution was adopted providing for annual general meetings to be held in future at which officers would be obliged to offer themselves for re-election by the League's players as a whole, rather than to serve indefinitely under appointment by the committee. Such meetings also afforded every player a direct relationship with the running of the League and the opportunity to put forward his suggestions.
Coggeshall withdrew before the start of the 1967/68 season. As with Wethersfield, their tenure of league status had been short, but their contribution to the promotion of competitive chess in the area had been invaluable. With the arrival of Marconi and Witham eight clubs competed for the championship and all but Witham fielded a team in the new second division.
Strangely enough, although the concept of four board teams had never been seriously considered for the first division, it was readily adopted for the second. This may have been due to the fact that, initially, the second division was not regarded as having the same formality as the first. In the past, players who had not been selected had, from to time, been tagged on to the end of the team to play their counterparts from the opposing club on a friendly basis, and the same friendly and informal atmosphere was carried forward when competition was regularised into a proper division. Those who had played on a friendly basis were not necessarily the best players available, for the custom had been to offer games to everyone who wanted to play an opponent from another club without regard to playing strength, so sometimes near beginners turned out while players with greater experience stayed at home. This practice, too, was continued into the second division so that, for a while, it offered open house to anybody who wanted to play rather than only to those who qualified on playing ability. Competitive instincts gradually overshadowed this noble concept, but the same high ideals can still be seen today, principally in some of the teams towards the lower end of the third division. Only recently Chelmsford club, for one, succeeded in fielding over the course of a season every single member who had expressed a desire to play. The second division found instant favour with two different categories of player. There were those who had clamoured for a place in the club's team, but who had rarely achieved selection, and there were also those who had often been asked to play but had declined to do so, feeling that their playing ability was not sufficient to enable them to take on somebody in the opposing club's best six. A good example of this type of player could be found at Hoffmanns, whose overall membership supported the fielding of ten players, but not many of the ten felt up to the demands of appearing in the first six. So, although the first division had always represented a struggle, the club had found no difficulty in taking up its place in the second.
In its early days the fixtures in the second division coincided with the first, so that clubs met ten-a-side. Whilst convenient from the point of view of administration, the arrangement tended to stretch available equipment to its absolute limits. Visiting teams were always called upon to bring clocks, and sometimes sets and boards as well. Nevertheless it was not unusual to find one or two games in progress without the aid of a clock, for sometimes the combined resources of the two clubs could not muster ten in working order. Sometimes, too, the visiting club forgot to bring any. The use of clocks was not compulsory, even in the first division, reflecting the fact that newly formed clubs were not fully equipped, and the rules simply provided that clocks had to be used where available. In fact, the rules remained so worded until as recently as 1985. Happily, murmurs of slow play have rarely, if ever, been heard, for those who have played without clocks usually tended to be from the lower ranges of playing strength where moves are often played at quite a fast rate.
The Witham club had been formed with the aid of some counselling from the League, pursuant to the policy of helping to create new clubs in the area. Like the League itself, the club grew rapidly from humble beginnings. In its first season, one match was drawn and thirteen lost, and in all seventeen matches were played before the first win was finally registered. But within a few years the club became a major force both in numerical and playing strength, culminating with the capture of the first division championship in 1973.
The other newcomers, Marconi, were also to enjoy considerable success and were soon to dominate the championship. Happily the club has rarely been troubled by the problems of dwindling membership so often encountered by company clubs, and for much of its life has enjoyed a level of support comparable with rivals whose catchment areas comprise entire towns.
The previous season's arrivals, Essex University and Maldon, also established themselves as League stalwarts, although neither has succeeded in capturing the championship to date. But both made good starts, with the University finishing third in each of its first two seasons and Maldon becoming the first winners of the second division. In those days the first and second divisions were known as Divisions A and B. The numerical suffix did not appear until the formation of the third division in 1976.
1967/68 saw Chelmsford regain the championship from Colchester. Facilities continued to expand. A team was entered in the Postal Chess League, and grading was introduced. Ray Keene, arguably the leading British player of the day, gave a simultaneous display. A League Magazine appeared for the first time, and became an established feature of the League in the years that followed.
Stan Wooller, the Secretary of Hoffmanns, emigrated to New Zealand and received a warm tribute at the A.G.M. for all his efforts during the League's formative years. Stan Wooller's role in the creation and development of the League cannot be understated, for it was he who played a principal part in the establishment of contact between clubs in the area which led to the first meeting in 1964, and it was he who did so much to maintain the Hoffmann Club's membership of the League at a time when its withdrawal might have placed the future of the League itself in jeopardy.
Until now, all clerical duties had been undertaken by the General Secretary, but owing to the expansion of activities the post of Tournaments Officer was created to deal with yet another new venture, an individual championship. Andrew Lait of Marconi was the first holder of the office, and he also dealt with grading. Nineteen players competed in the first individual championship, run on the Swiss system, which was won by Gordon Campbell, a Marconi player who had also played for Chelmsford.
1968/69 saw no further additions to the League's ranks. Representative matches were played against Ilford Chess Club and the Rest of Essex, and the League also staged the Essex & Norfolk county match. The existence of the League had soon become known to those in the south of the County, and these matches reflected the fast growth of contact between the two areas. In fact, about a dozen of the League's players were already playing regularly in County matches at this time. County matches have been played in the League's area ever since, albeit infrequently. Not long after the Norfolk match the League was host to the clash of the titans, Essex and Cambridge, which saw some of the country's leading players assembled together under a North Essex roof. Such an event would have been considered a completely unrealistic pipe-dream only a few years before. Spectators were able to enjoy the sight of Jonathan Penrose, playing against Ray Keene, then the highest graded player in the country. It was well established now that there was something north of Brentwood.
See also: Essex-Suffolk Border League, formation of the NECL, first two years of NECL