The League's Individual Championship was divided into two sections, Premier and Challengers, and a total of 26 competed. It remained as two tournaments from then on although the entry did not expand in proportion to the increasing number of players taking part in the team competitions; and in subsequent years was often somewhere around the 20 mark and no higher. Players would meet in their own homes, or at club premises, so that a six round event was likely to require every contestant to make three journeys to an away venue. Journeys could be quite a distance for those living on the perimeter of the League's area, which may explain why the event was not as well supported as might have been expected. Another factor to take into account was that not all the entrants ran cars, especially in the early years. A fairly fanatical degree of enthusiasm was required for a player to take on the travelling commitments to remote places in the depths of winter. Image the journey by train from Witham to Southminster via Shenfield and Wickford, an itinerary undertaken by Roy Heppinstall in order to play against Maldon's John Dodgson. A Braintree player faced an even more arduous journey, with three changes of train, if paired with the same opponent. It was not until 1984 that anybody had the idea of converting the event into a weekend tournament. Entrants were then only required to undertake two journeys, on successive days, to the venue and could benefit from the competitive atmosphere generated by all the players being congregated together. Certainly the idea was well received, for it attracted some 50 competitors, about double the usual number, and the event has been run in this way ever since.
A strange thing about chessplayers is that they do not seem to socialise with each other to any great extent outside the realms of the game itself. Two players can meet at matches on many occasions over several years, perhaps playing against each other a number of times, yet they are unlikely to meet at any other location and very often each will know very little about the other over and above the way he plays chess. When the Individual Championship was converted to a weekend tournament it was held at the Sportsman Club in Braintree, where the facilities provided the ideal opportunity for players to get together for activities completely unrelated to chess. Many competitors took full advantage, thus making the event into a useful social gathering as well as a tournament. Any passer-by who happened to see Colchester's Andy Lingard arriving at the venue with snooker cue in hand would probably have needed a lot of convincing that he was there to compete in the area's individual chess championship! By now the Individual was no longer being run as two separate tournaments. Instead it was run as one event with the Challengers Trophy being awarded to the player graded 140 or below who achieved the best score.
League Individual Championship 1968/69
Marconi won the championship in 1968/69 to begin a period of domination which extended well into the 1970's. Colchester began a similar period of ascendency in the second division.
In the following season, 1969-70, Wickford and STL joined the League. Wickford had been regarded as prospective members ever since the League was founded, and the eventual arrival of the club brought to fruition the links which had been forged and nurtured over a period of years. The club had joined the Essex League in 1964, but by 1968 the eastern section of that League's third division had been decimated by the withdrawal of Burnham, Ghyllgrove and the Basildon town club. A change of direction had been called for, and the club turned to its old friends in the north for the active competition it so keenly sought. Wickford can claim to have quite a lot in common with Braintree, for not only do both clubs have a solid nucleus of experienced and long serving players quite capable of beating the very best opposition on their day, but also both can justifiably say that playing performance is not accurately reflected in the list of League honours which appears at the end of this book. Such lists are, of course, always about winners rather than those who came close. In their very first match Wickford defeated champions Marconi, their only first division defeat of that season, and went on to finish third. They were also third the following season only two points behind the winners. Often they made a good start to a season, only to fall away later, another characteristic shared with Braintree. Wickford's challenge for honours was, perhaps, strongest in its earliest years of membership when there was no club in the neighbouring town of Billericay. When the chessplayers of Billericay decided the town was quite big enough to support a club of its own some depletion of Wickford’s potential was perhaps inevitable, but always they have remained highly respected opponents never to be taken lightly by the opposition.
The other newcomers, STL, were chessplaying employees of Standard Telecommunications Laboratories, a company based in the far west of Essex at Harlow. The fact that the club's application for membership was so keenly submitted, and received, speaks volumes for the high level of enthusiasm which existed on both sides, for the club faced a journey of at least 20 miles to each away match and a similar journey confronted every other club for the return fixture. As it happened, home and away fixtures were discontinued after the previous playing season, so any given journey was no longer scheduled to take place every season, but every other season instead, which was not quite so daunting. On the other hand, the Knockout Tournament was introduced at this time, so the luck of the draw could cause the same journey to occur twice in the same season, and would inevitably do so for some.
For the first few years the Knockout was run on a similar basis to football's World Cup Finals, with the teams divided into groups and with each group conducted on an all-play-all basis to produce qualifiers for the later rounds, which were run as a straight knockout. Then, as now, the tournament was for teams of four and most clubs entered more than one team. The tournament was structured in this manner so as to guarantee each team a certain number of fixtures before possible elimination, thus compensating for the reduction in the number of championship fixtures resulting from the discontinuation of the home and away system. The tournament threw together players from the entire range of playing strength, and thus offered to second division players the chance to meet first division opponents over the board. This enabled the tournament to take on some of the romance associated with the F.A. Cup, for "giant-killings" soon became a regular feature. 'A' teams were often toppled by 'B' opponents and, now and again, by 'C' category players as well. Even the mighty Chelmsford A once lost to Braintree C. To add even more spice to the event the rate of play was accelerated to 35 moves in 1¼ hours as opposed to the 30 required in the championship. This was designed not only to give the tournament its own identity, but also to reduce the number of unfinished games requiring to be adjudicated.
Nineteen teams competed in the first season. Although the rules provided for tie breaks in the event of 2-2 match results in the Knockout rounds, this did not extend to the final itself. The two finalists, Essex University and Wickford, the latter's strength being a further endorsement of the club's strength in its early years of membership, promptly succeeded in drawing the match and, accordingly, shared the title. This was a remarkable result from the University's point of view, because an unforeseen chain of events obliged them to arrive with only three players and one board was thus lost by default. The rules were later altered to provide for a reply in the event of a drawn match in the final. To date, the amended rule has always produced an outright winner, and the tie of the first season remains unique.
1970 saw arrivals in the form of Writtle and a team from the Royal Army Medical Corps at Colchester. RAMC was another small club owing existence to a temporary preponderance of players in a small community. The club competed for only one season in the championship, where the exploits of leading player Doug Pallett were never going to be enough to disguise the deficiencies in playing strength further down the team. Only six game points were won in the entire season, but as three of them were gained in the same match the indignity of finishing without a single match point was avoided. Writtle also struggled in their opening campaign, but for them a bright future lay ahead. The principal pioneers of Writtle club were Ivor Smith and Len Frain, the league's first secretary who, as a serving police officer, had been stationed at both Braintree and Colchester, and represented both, before moving on to Writtle. He thus had the rare distinction of playing a part in the establishment of two clubs, Braintree and Writtle.The distribution of honours was becoming very much to a set pattern with Marconi and Colchester carrying off the first and second division championships respectively for the third successive season. Not for the first time, though, the margin of victory for Marconi was game, rather than match, points. Clubs frequently found themselves separated by such slender margins after a whole season of competition. It was often a mistake for a player to concede half a point to his opponent once a match result had been settled, rather than to play on and, if necessary, opt for adjudication. Sometimes, at the end of a season, odd half points so conceded could make all the difference between honours or merely coming close to them. Marconi also won the Knockout in 1970-71 and became the first club to achieve the 'double'. So great was the domination of the club that the feat was promptly repeated in the following season.
See also: Essex-Suffolk Border League, formation of the NECL, first two years of NECL,1966-1972 part 1