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