Tuesday, 25 October 2016

HOCCC: 1966-72 Rapid Development (of the North Essex Chess League) part 1

The material for this post is the fourth extract taken from the booklet "The History of the North Essex Chess League" by J. Priestley.

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 If neither Maldon nor Essex University had materialised, and both Coggeshall and Hoffmanns had withdrawn, could the three remaining clubs have ensured the League's survival?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

Saturday, 1 October 2016

HOCCC: The first two years of the North Essex Chess League

The material for this post is the third extract taken from the booklet "The History of the North Essex Chess League" by J. Priestley.

The First Two Years

The five clubs promoting the venture were optimistic that additions could be made to the League's membership quite quickly. There were, after all, a handful of known clubs who had shown interest, and who might decide to join once the League had proved itself to be viable. There was also the feeling that other clubs might already exist in the area. The existence of the known clubs had come to light in a relatively short period, and it seemed reasonable to suppose that there might yet be one or two more remaining to be discovered. Halstead, Dunmow, Felsted and Braintree Technical College were thought to be possible areas for such a discovery. But there was to be no addition to the League's numerical strength in that first season, nor in the second season either, and the enthusiasm of the players, many of whom were seeking their first taste of competitive chess, tended to obscure the fact that the League actually stood on somewhat insecure foundations.

None of the three major partners, Braintree, Chelmsford and Colchester, then enjoyed the level of membership seen in subsequent years, although none was in any real danger of failing to fulfil its fixtures. Both Hoffmanns and Wethersfield, however, were very small clubs born from that curious quirk of fate which sometimes causes a disproportionately large number of chessplayers to find themselves assembled within a small community. So far as the Hoffmann club was concerned, the simple law of averages decreed that the inevitable turnover of staff which takes place in any place of employment must eventually reduce the number of the chessplaying variety, and a reduction to an average level would probably leave insufficient to support league chess. But at least this was likely to be a reasonably slow process. By comparison, the Wethersfield club lived in absolute peril. As service personnel, all were liable to transfer at short notice and all were certain to return to the United States within a short time when tours of duty ended. There was no guarantee that Uncle Sam would provide enough, or even any chessplaying replacements. There was certainly a very real danger of the League’s membership being reduced to four clubs in a short time, and some risk of a further reduction to just three.

Play began in-the autumn of 1964 and a very successful season was enjoyed. Colchester completely overwhelmed the opposition by winning all their matches except one, where they were held to a draw by second placed Chelmsford. League tables in the form we see today were not published in the first two seasons, and League records of results have not survived, but the well-kept records of Colchester Chess Club reveal that, in the first season, third, fourth and fifth places were occupied by Wethersfield, Hoffmanns and Braintree respectively.

There are very few players still competing in the League today who experienced an away match at Wethersfield. The approach was via several miles of unlit, winding country roads through the intense blackness of night which prevails when there is no sizeable town within close proximity. On arrival at the camp entrance, one had the uneasy feeling that armaments were close at hand. Somehow the sentry's directions were always misconstrued, so there then followed a tentative drive along a labyrinth of dark roads and shadowy buildings in search of the sergeants' mess. Once found, however, the warmth of the American welcome fully compensated for the rigours of the journey, and an enjoyable match ensued. It is interesting to speculate on what would have happened had there been a full scale alert while a match was in progress, for it was widely believed that in such an event American Air Bases were totally sealed for security reasons. Would visitors have been hurriedly escorted out or firmly enclosed within? Fortunately perhaps, the question never arose. At the end of the first season, the inevitable transfer of U.S. personnel took place leaving the Wethersfield mainstay, Sergeant Roland Goad, without a team. The League was fortunate that he should be the one left behind for he took over the vacant post of League Secretary and fulfilled his duties with considerable energy and ability until he, too, was recalled the following year. Braintree also benefited from his services as a player until his departure.

In those days there were some thousands of American servicemen stationed in Britain, sufficient to include amongst their ranks enough chessplayers to justify tournaments and other events. Roland Goad featured prominently in these events and could perhaps be said to have been the strongest American player then living in Britain. Certainly he was one of the best players in the League in its first two seasons, as well as one of the most popular.  He was the winner of an individual Lightning Championship held at Hoffmans in 1966, the first of a number of lightning events which took place in the League's early year's.

So, in the summer of 1965, the League was reduced to just four clubs. Contacts had been maintained with all the known clubs, but had borne no fruit. Enquiries had also failed to unearth any new clubs. The recruiting drive even extended to the offer of help to any individual hoping to start a new club in his area, in the form of counselling and loan of equipment, but this idea also brought no result. It was resolved to carry on competition between the four remaining clubs and hope for some early success in the recruiting campaign, and play began accordingly in the autumn. Then, in November, contact was made with a small group at Coggeshall who were keen to try their hands at league chess. After a brief consultation among the four member clubs the fixture list was hurriedly amended so as to include the Coggeshall club, although formal election into the League did not occur until the Committee next met in the following January, by which time a number of matches had already been played!

It was a brave venture indeed by the Coggeshall players. The group was so small that meetings took place in private houses, and premises were hired only for the purpose of playing league matches. But more significant than the club's size was the fact that the average age of the players was around seventy. Travelling was always going to be a problem, and some were in failing health.  A fairly rapid injection of younger blood was needed to ensure the survival of league status, but this was not to be.

As with Wethersfield, an away match at Coggeshall was a memorable experience. Matches were played in a building  which very much resembled a Victorian workhouse. It was never quite as cold as the description may suggest, for the old iron stove which stood squarely in the centre of the room provided a reasonable amount of heat. But it also provided a reasonable amount of smoke and the lighting was exceedingly poor, and the combination of the two must have constituted an even bigger handicap to the elderly hosts than it did to the younger visitors. Conditions there would not have appealed greatly to players accustomed to the high degree of comfort offered by most clubs today, but were readily accepted by the hardy pioneers of the League's early days.

Thoughts had turned to the acquisition of a trophy, a clear indication of confidence in the League's future.  A Braintree businessman, Mr G. Kalms, learned of this and very kindly presented the League with a silver cup which remains the first division trophy to this day. Mr Kalms was elected as the League's first president in acknowledgement of his donation.

The 1965/66 playing season itself produced one of the most dramatic finishes in the entire history of the League. The three major clubs, Braintree, Chelmsford and Colchester, completely overran the two minnows, but no one of the three managed to break clear of the other two. Braintree could have done so, for they went into their last match a point ahead of Chelmsford and three in front of opponents Colchester. A draw would have been sufficient but nerves failed when most needed. The match started well enough. And at one time a win seemed likely, but the tension caused good looking positions to somehow erode away and, in the end, not even a draw could be salvaged. Even then all hope was not lost, for the season's final fixture brought together Colchester and Chelmsford in a situation where the winner would secure the championship. A tight match was therefore guaranteed and, if it finished as a draw, all three clubs would be level on match points but with Braintree placed first by virtue of a superior game point score. But, on the day, Chelmsford snatched victory 4-2 and with it the first of the club's many League honours. Memories of that fateful night lingered long in the minds of the Braintree players, for eleven years were to pass before the club finally laid hands on the League's premier trophy.

Two seasons had now been successfully completed. If anything, enthusiasm among the players ran at an even higher level than at the beginning of the venture, for already there was a detectable increase in playing strength bought about by participation in competitive, as opposed to purely friendly play. In those days the League was administered wholly by the committee, and did not hold general meetings, and it is likely that many who played in the League did not know of the major problem which the management was about to face. In its meetings to date much of the committee's time had been dedicated to ingenious ideas for unearthing further chess activity in the area, or even creating it, so as to add to the League's membership of five clubs. But now it was more a case of trying to ensure that membership did not fall below that number, for both Hoffmanns and Coggeshall had indicated doubts about their ability to enter a team for the following season.

So anxious were the committee to ensure the availability of sufficient activities that even a liaison with clubs well into Suffolk was considered, and on one occasion two representatives from Stowmarket attended a committee meeting. The idea, however, created no more than the setting up of an annual inter-league match between the League and the Suffolk League, which in the end lasted only for a few seasons. John Priestley, who had replaced Roland Goad as General Secretary, volunteered to play for Hoffmann's in the hope that one more player would tilt the scales towards survival as a League club. Even so, the continuation of both Hoffmanns and Coggeshall remained in the balance during that summer of 1966, and there was no sign of any prospective new members. The League was facing its darkest hour.

Today we are acclimatised to the notion of four board matches. In 1966, however, four board matches were looked upon as very much of a novelty, and sufficiently far removed from the established concept of inter club competition between premier teams to defy suggestion. In many quarters, even competition between teams of six was considered to be somewhat lightweight, for it was quite usual to find leagues operating with eight, or even ten, in a team. Nevertheless, it seems strange that the notion was never seriously considered as a solution, for it certainly would have guaranteed the survival of Hoffmanns, if not Coggeshall as well. Furthermore, the major clubs, whose membership supported a team of six players with some to spare, could have entered two teams and the number of competing players alike. The status of the League, in comparison with others, would have been reduced by such an innovation, perhaps considerably so in the eyes of some, but survival of a viable nucleus of clubs was the paramount objective at that point in time. Possibly, however, the committee members were unknowingly blessed with a sixth sense, for as things turned out reduction of teams to four boards would have made no difference to survival of the League, and would have been very much a retrograde step.

See also: Essex-Suffolk Border League, formation of the NECL