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Enfield Grammar School - an NCCL History

Part 1

John Clarke

Enfield Grammar School Chess Club spent 10 years in the NCCL - longer than any other school team, and with notably more success too. They first joined in 1960, at a time when they had several strong players and had proved themselves far and away the best school side in the area. They needed a fresh challenge, and the NCCL provided it.

In its first season the team was headed by Mike Patterson (who finished a highly creditable 5th in the London Juniors that year), and Stephen Flowerdew (4th in the next age-group down, same event). We came in third out of 12 clubs, an excellent debut.

The real driving force behind the club was a young chemistry teacher called Mr Haydon, who didn’t confine himself to supervising meetings, organising transport and looking after the admin stuff, but also ran club tournaments, and ensured the younger players got coaching. He took particular trouble with the Lower School club (first and second forms), because he knew that was where the talent of the future - not such a distant future either - was going to come from.

1960 also saw the arrival in the first form of a promising group of players who would become the backbone of the side for several seasons later on. In the third form was another youngster named Brian Colls, a fellow member with Bill Hartston at Enfield Chess Club, and soon to play high boards for Middlesex Juniors. Incredibly he was overlooked for the EGS team that year, and instead played for Enfield CC in the North Circular. As the school magazine later commented: "… we learned his worth to our embarrassment"!

Patterson left after the first season, along with a couple of the middle-order players. This is of course a perennial problem for school teams of any kind. You just get a good experienced one together, then a couple of key members leave, and you’re back to the drawing board. There’s no stability, no long-lasting core of players; instead, a constant bubbling-up of newer members replacing older ones all the way down the order. If anything happens to disrupt that upward flow of talent, then eventually there’s trouble.

Fortunately we had Colls ready to take over the Board 1 slot, and he was to anchor the side for the next 5(!) seasons - an incredible feat of longevity in a school team. His form-mate Alan Thomas came in too at this time, soon becoming a very dependable middle-board player. The team was shored up further when former Enfield Junior champion Mike Marshall joined the school in the sixth form. It was lucky we had all this new talent, because two or three former regulars were now often unavailable owing to pressure of exams. 1961-62 saw EGS drop to 6th out of 14 clubs, still a good solid result, and superior to Tottenham GS (East Barnet had already quit).

After an excellent third-place finish in 1962/63, the team lost several of its best players at one go, including Flowerdew and Marshall. An even more serious blow fell when Mr Haydon left EGS in the middle of the following season. For a long time there was no member of staff able to provide more than very basic supervision of the club. All the more active involvement - competition organising, coaching, etc - dropped right off. At first we seemed to take this setback in our stride, finishing 5th out of 11 in the league and coming in a highly commendable 3rd in the Capes Trophy. Several new players were successfully blooded, including Chris Leigh, Don Austin and Mark Trayhorn, all from that 1960 1st-form intake.

The following year, however, the club began to lose its way. It was still only loosely supervised by the masters, and received no active direction from them at all. Attendance at meetings fell dramatically. All too often it was only some regular team members there plus a small band of wannabes. (This was the year I myself made the side, though for a long time with only moderate success.) Several of the higher boards were under pressure from forthcoming A-levels or O-levels, and were often absent for weeks at a time. In fact, two of them dropped out of the team altogether after a couple of matches. Another of the regulars actually lost interest in the game for a time and refused to play the last two fixtures.

Not surprisingly, our results suffered badly. Season 1964/65 was the worst since we started in the NCCL - one match win only, and two draws. Even Brian Colls, by now captain, didn’t escape the malaise, and for the only time posted a sub-50% score on top board. We started on a truly farcical note against ERDE. Through some mix-up, several of our team were not collected from the agreed meeting-place, and we defaulted three boards in a 3-5 defeat.

EGS did at least avoid bottom place, thus holding on to its place in the top division. And somewhere behind the scenes, the decision was taken to beef up staff involvement again in the running of the club. One remarkable innovation was the introduction of lunch-time sessions every day. These were used for offhand games, leaving the Friday evening meetings for more formal games and matches. Club tournaments were held once more, and a special deal saw us get issues of the magazine "Chess" at a reduced rate each month.

The man responsible for much of this activity was senior maths master Brian Newton (who somehow also managed to organise school cricket and compile the timetable each year!). New captain Chris Leigh, a more energetic and extrovert character than his predecessor, also injected us with a feeling of confidence and purpose. He was one of the best skippers I played under, whether as junior or adult.

Thanks to all this, 1965/66 saw something of a resurgence. We started off badly, including a 1.5 - 6.5 drubbing from Palmers Green, and it looked as though the previous season was about to get played all over again. Then Chris took the hard decision to drop one or two older players who weren’t performing, reshuffled the board-order, and brought in some new blood including former Enfield U-14 champion Keith Simmons. The effect was immediate. We won two matches in a row and drew a third that should also really have been won.

Our final league position was 4th out of 9, while still losing more matches than we won. An unexpected 3.5 - 4.5 defeat by usual league easy beats N Chingford was due to their having got a couple of ring-ins, among them Islington stalwart J S Bennett, who handed Colls one of his few defeats that year. Sometimes I think we should have done something similar, by including Old Grammarians in the side for the tougher matches. It would have been hard to organise though, as so many of them seemed to end up at Cambridge! Actually, Colls came into this category for the second half of the season - he’d officially left EGS at Xmas 1965, but saw out the season with us. It was the last time we were to have a real top-board player. Alan Thomas, by now our No 2, also left.

After these departures, no-one expected much from 1966/67. Although Chris Leigh continued as skipper, and we had several experienced campaigners with some highly dependable players ready to come in lower down, there was no clearly outstanding talent to anchor the top boards. And three of the top four had A-levels that year. And once again we began with a defeat against Palmers Green … But that, as it turned out, was to be the only one! Two more matches were drawn, and we won all the rest, including a memorable success against title-holders Finchley.

One of the turning-points was our second match of the season. Had this been against one of the tougher clubs such as Enfield or Finchley, we might have gone the rest of the year without ever finding the necessary belief in ourselves. As it was, we played N Chingford at home and demolished them 6.5 - 1.5. This was a splendid result in itself, but even more important was the benefit felt by our less experienced members, all of whom turned in wins. They now realised they could indeed foot it at this level, and their performances remained remarkably steady for the rest of the campaign.

Our new-found confidence was bolstered further not long afterwards by an easy win against Standard Telephones in the Lawrance Cup, and then we faced Wood Green in the league. This crucial match could have gone either way. A lot depended on who they chose to field against us. Luckily, on the night, Bob Turnham was missing along with one or two of their other heavyweights. We were short of one of our own regulars that evening, but fortune was with us. After some truly see-saw games we ended up victors by 5 - 3. Our morale took another quantum leap. For the rest of the season, no matter how high the reputation of our opponents, we went out every time in the full expectation of taking the match. We didn’t always succeed, but often enough!

No one member of the side really shone in all this, although Don Austin’s performance at Board 2 (and towards the season’s end, Board 1) does I think deserve special mention. There was the odd purple patch by one individual or another, but at the end of the season, when you added up the figures, it all evened out and no-one had averaged more than about 65%. But very few had done much worse than that either. It was a real team effort, that, and one I’m proud to have been associated with. We finished level on match points with Finchley in the league, but under the rules then in force they took the title yet again, through a superior score in game points. Our win over them counted for naught, as did the fact they’d lost more matches than us.

It was the following season 1967/68 that saw the beginning of our final decline and eventual failure as an NCCL side. Three of the top four left - Austin, Trayhorn and captain Chris Leigh. The huge gap they left was never adequately filled. We had replacements, but for some reason too many of the team now seemed unable to develop beyond the level they’d already achieved. Hardly any of the more experienced members were able to make successfully the transition from middle to higher board play, myself iNCCLuded. Maybe that was because the standard in the NCCL had been creeping upwards slowly over the last few years. There certainly weren’t any easy games any more, even on Boards 7 or 8.

Even worse, several of our promising younger members were beginning to lose interest. Not so much in chess as such - they still turned up regularly at club meetings - but in playing for the team, and all that that entailed. They had O-levels that year, it’s true, but that wasn’t the whole story. Numerous other interests now tended to distract their attention: they’d rather attend an FA Cup replay than turn out against Ferguson Thorn; they’d gossip animatedly between moves about the latest Jimi Hendrix concert ….

Early results that season were not especially discouraging. We drew 4-4 with Thorn in the Lawrance Cup (losing - again! - on board elimination), then followed up with decisive victories over Standard Telephones and N Chingford. The 2 - 6 reverse against Alcazar that came next was not entirely unexpected, and neither was the 1.5 - 5.5 defeat early in February by Finchley. By this time though, the problem with the juniors was seriously apparent, our middle order seemed to have suffered a collapse of morale, and one new but reliable lower-board player had suddenly left the school when his family shifted to Australia. All remaining matches were lost, apart from an unexpectedly easy win against ERDE.

As well as the near-catastrophic fall in our playing strength, there was another form of adversity we had to meet that season. Some of the clubs in the league definitely seemed to dislike having to play against schoolboys. I’ve refrained so far from mentioning this, because most of the time it took the form of little more than occasional heavy gamesmanship. To a bunch of youngsters like ourselves, largely unused to a really competitive atmosphere, this would have seemed more intentionally hostile than it probably was. But in 1967/68 the behaviour of some clubs took a decided turn for the worse, pointing to genuine resentment on their part at our success the previous year.

In a way, I can understand the feelings of the people concerned. They were on a hiding to nothing. If they won, that was no more than expected; if they lost, it was "what a bunch of charlies, losing to those kids".

To Enfield, of course, we were a sort of unofficial nursery club, so they were always pleased to have us visit. Other welcoming clubs included ERDE, and above all North Chingford, to whom we were often grateful for the ready offer of lifts home after our matches there.

At the other end of the scale were Palmers Green (later Alcazar) - or more correctly, a hard core of about 4-5 individual members, with Peter Fox usually at the forefront. They tended to be rather offhand in greeting us at the start of the evening, and at its end were often pushy regarding unfinished games, trying to railroad us into conceding draws or losses that weren’t always as evident as their analysis tried to prove.

Neither - less excusably - would they ever agree to play us away from home. Every date we suggested would turn out for some reason to be unsuitable for them. As things were, we invariably played away against clubs who were based nearby, to save the school caretaker from having too many late nights. But Palmers Green to my mind did not come into the "nearby" category, and they should have been prepared to take their turn at visiting EGS.

(This attitude made a curious contrast with the general atmosphere that prevailed at the club. If you could look beyond the mildly off-putting behaviour, you could see it was actually a pretty congenial and welcoming place. The average age was noticeably lower than at most other clubs. And their home base, the "Bird in Hand" in Tottenhall Road - not a mere side room either, but one of the actual bars - was also conducive to a more free-and-easy ambience. I visited there on my own early in ’67 for a Kirby Cup game, and had quite a long friendly conversation afterwards with a number of them. Jeff Baum even shouted me a ride home.

Looking back, I think maybe some of what we perceived as hostility was just the single-minded and competitive approach they always took to matches.

I must also mention one indubitably positive aspect to their hosting. Refreshments at the "Bird in Hand" were not the customary luke-warm tea and soggy biscuits, but our choice of a drink and snack from the bar. Needless to say, the older EGS players were always straight into the beer! Neither we nor any of the other clubs - with the possible exception of Enfield - were in a position to reciprocate, so I readily salute Palmers Green’s outstanding generosity in this regard. Sad to say, it all came to an end in 1967, when they were forced out of there and had to relocate to the more spartan Angel Community Centre in Edmonton.)

As I’ve already said, we started to experience a lot more offhand behaviour from some clubs in 1967/68, the season after - and I don’t believe this was coincidence - we so nearly snatched the title. It was like we’d been tolerated provided we didn’t get uppity and threaten to actually win the damn’ league, but now we’d transgressed that unwritten rule!

Alcazar this time moved beyond semi-legit gamesmanship and into outright rule-breaking. Peter Fox got a won position, and thereafter at all-too-frequent intervals reminded my team-mate that it might be good manners to resign. (Conveniently ignoring one of his own lot, Brian Zietman, who’d dropped a whole piece via that hoary old trap in the Cambridge Springs where the loose bishop gets wiped on g5. Zietman in fact went on to win, as his opponent, who’d better remain nameless, failed to follow through properly.) The usual heavying at adjudication time was not neglected, even though the match was already clearly decided.

Finchley unexpectedly joined the pack too, though in their case it was really only a single member, one A Philpott. He behaved in a bumptious and disdainful manner throughout the evening, as though the whole match were kind of beneath his dignity. To be fair, I suppose one has to class this as gamesmanship. The trouble was, he didn’t leave it at that. He also muscled in on my duties as home captain by doing all the announcements and directing the course of the match, as though I was totally incapable of handling such responsibilities. That was a very different matter. It was rank bad manners, quite inexcusable, especially coming from a man in late middle age representing a previously well-behaved club.

There was one amusing note in it all, as he strode round the boards after the call of time, "finding" favourable results for Finchley at virtually every one. After he’d argued strenuously for several minutes in favour of Black at one board, someone reminded him that Finchley actually had White in that game. And suddenly poor old Black’s prospects were, it seemed, really rather minimal after all!

The last and ugliest incident came in our final match of the season against Ferguson Thorn, and featured a character who maybe had some cause to dislike EGS - Neville Keay. Older NCCL hands will remember well this rather scruffy, occasionally truculent middle-board regular.

During the previous season’s match he’d been at the centre of a lively dispute. Opponent Keith Simmons claimed a win on time, only to find he’d miscounted his moves. The game was resumed. But NK’s resulting discomposure, and the mild hubbub that continued round the board, caused him (or so he claimed) to blunder the exchange and the game. There followed a bit of a barney, and heated accusations of unfair distraction, but the result stood.

Then late in ’67 I’d met NK in the Kirby Cup, when he’d eventually been helped to an unmerited win, after a Mexican stand-off over resuming the adjourned game.

What also seemed to have got up his nose was that we’d postponed the match from its original date. Half my team decided only a day or two beforehand that they wanted to go see an FA Cup replay between Spurs and Man Utd (1-nil to Spurs, by the way - those were the days!). Now chess was regarded as a wholly voluntary activity at EGS - unlike, say, soccer or cricket - and if someone wasn’t prepared to play for the school, there was no rule that compelled him to. And no way did I want to take a decimated team to F-T, who around that time were at their peak as a club.

The league rules weren’t so tight then, and the change was made with the full agreement of the F-T match captain and league secretary. I have to admit it probably mucked several people’s plans about at short notice, but for me as captain it was truly a no-win situation. I was damned for seeking a postponement, and would have been almost equally damned had I shown up with a team of third-form rookies who could have provided no real competition, and might have been put right off chess by the hammering they’d have inevitably got.

(Remember too that in the 60s, parents tended to be more concerned than they would be nowadays if their 14- and 15-year olds were out till well after 11pm. A request from out of the blue, for their offspring to make such a late-night excursion as soon as the following evening, was especially unlikely to be regarded favourably.)

Anyhow, we turned up to play the rearranged match, more or less at full strength, to find old NK seemed to be acting as captain for the evening (even though the regular man Len Dight was there as well). His manner throughout the formalities was oafish and foul-mouthed, with several slighting allusions to our "football team". So offensive was its cumulative effect, we might well have been justified in withdrawing from the match on the spot. But we’d all come there to play chess, and play we did, though under a nasty black cloud. Whether it was a factor in our 2 - 6 defeat, I couldn’t say. Truth to tell, I think most of us had had enough of the season all round, and just wanted the hell out.

I left EGS in July 1968 and had no regular connection with the team after that. Shortly before then I’d predicted both the continuing decline that occurred, and our eventual departure from the NCCL. How the latter finally came about I don’t know for certain. I imagine Mr Newton surveyed the depleted and undistinguished collection of players left at our disposal in 1970, and took a painful but unavoidable decision.

The impetus given ten years before by Mr Haydon and the talented players he found at the school had finally spent itself. Now that everyone who had taken part during the glory days was gone, the writing was well and truly on the wall. Chess at EGS continued to lose ground to less austere and demanding diversions, a process that’s accelerated everywhere in recent years as the world threatens to drown in a rising deluge of computer games.

So what can we conclude from all this? Looking at the turnover of clubs that’s occurred in the NCCL both then and since, plus the results they posted, I reckon we did pretty well in almost any terms, and a lot better than many other clubs that in theory had more resources to draw on. As with many chess clubs though, the façade of bustling activity and high membership levels often hid the fact that the whole thing really rested on unremitting effort and achievement by a small number of key individuals. We nearly came off the rails when Mr Haydon left in 1963, and once the players he had nurtured were gone in their turn some years later, the whole thing finally did run out of steam.

And I think even he would have had trouble holding the line in the changing social climate of the later 60s. Boys began around then to pursue a far wider range of interests and activities. Few of these were as demanding or time-consuming as chess, and many of them had nothing to do with the school. Indeed, one or two long-established school societies at Enfield Grammar folded altogether around this time through lack of support. So it could even be argued that the chess club in those later years did rather better than might have been expected.

Crucial Games from 1966/67

Palmers Green v EGS October 1966: P Moore v JC

First match of the season, when the newbies were not yet really into their stride. If only we’d left this one for another couple of months! (But then, would we still have won three out of four at the top of the order, as we did?)

My own game certainly shouldn’t have been lost. After 19 moves in a French Defence, I’d got to this interesting situation, with Black comfortably placed.

Some sort of advance in the centre is clearly called for, but I was far too eager to make it. I only succeeded in blowing the whole game away with two successive errors:

(19) …. d4?; (20) Ne4, e5??; (3) Nd6+, etc. I wasn’t even in time trouble!

The resulting 3-5 - 4.5 loss in the match seemed relatively unimportant at the time. It was a more favourable scoreline than we’d expected. But it would later come back to haunt us.

Wood Green v EGS November 1966: H James v JC

Having blundered a P in the late opening, I decided in desperation to start "mixing it" in the hope of confusing my opponent. Several missed chances followed on both sides, until we reached the following position. By now I’d less than 2 minutes left for 3 tricky moves.

(28) …. Nc4; (29) Be4, Nd2?!; (30) Rd1? [(30) Bxh7, Qf4!; (31) Rd1, Nf3+; (32) Kf1, Qh2; (33) Be4, Qxh3+; (34) Ke2, Qxg4 leads to further complications that seem in the end to balance out to a draw.]

(30) …. Rxe4; (31) Nxe4, Qxe4; (32) Qxe4 [Rxd2??], Nxe4; (33) Rd7, Nc5

The whole sequence starting …. Rxe4 only works because I could here cover my first two ranks, and simultaneously attack his rook while defending the pawns. Now White made an error that ultimately restricted the scope of his rook.

(34) Rf7?, Kg8; (35) Rf5, Be7; (36) Kf1, Kg7; (37) Ke2, Kg6; (38) Ke3 - adjudicated 0-1.

We expected a draw at best from this, but somehow adjudicator Harry Golombek felt justified in declaring it a win for Black! Match result: 5 -3 to EGS. Had I lost it would have been 4 - 4. It was the outcome to this match that encouraged us to believe we could seriously challenge for the title.

Ferguson Thorn v EGS January 1967: JC v J Krawiec

First match after a long break, and maybe one or two of us were rusty and not really "up for it". Certainly this match needn’t have been drawn. For me personally, it all went horribly wrong from this innocuous-looking position.

(1) dxc [not much option!] …. Rxc5; (2) f4, Nd5; (3) a3? [Qe2 better] …. Qd6; (4) c4? [again, Qe2 was preferable] …. Nxf4!; (5) Rxf4, Re5; (6) R1f1, Re1! and with no prospect at all now of counterplay, White was done for.

Actually, the most critical error in this match was a unilateral and inexplicable decision taken by our captain, to concede the only unfinished game. Most of us thought it had real chances of being adjudicated a draw. It meant the match ended at 4 - 4 instead of 4.5 - 3.5, and was ultimately to cost us the championship. But of course I’d done my bit already as far as dropping points was concerned.

Finchley v EGS February 1967: JC v J Pole

Our penultimate match, one we had to win to maintain our (by now) outside chance for the title. My opponent was another well-known NCCL "character" - he was about 55 then, a Michael Foot type with glasses and untidy longish hair. The score was 3.5 - 2.5 to Finchley, and my game was the last to finish, apart from a clear-cut win on another board that our man was wisely sitting on, waiting for the adjudicator. After some truly abysmal play on both sides, we had come down to the following pawn ending (and don’t ask me why my opponent didn’t opt in his turn to sit on this position):

(1) Ke3, f5; (2) b3, Ke7; (3) c4, bxc; (4) bxc, Kd6; (5) g4, f4+?

Pole makes a final error, in the belief that his king has the legs to catch my Ps on both sides of the board. Correct was (5) …. fxg, which leads to a draw. Play now went:

(6) Ke4, Kc4; (7) h4, Kxc3; (8) g5, Kc5; (9) h5, Kd6; (10) g6, hxg, and after (11) h6! (hxg????) he had to resign.

The expected win came through in the adjudicated game, so for the first and only time we’d managed to beat Finchley.

* * * * *

All good fun, and there were plenty more wins besides for me that year. But given the chance, I’d gladly forego every single non-crucial one, in return for a solitary half-point in one or other of those games against Palmers Green and Ferguson Thorn!