Then came a Sponsor in the form of Pontin's, and the focus changed. The event was held as two or three regional team Swisses followed by a National Final, played at one of Pontin's holiday camps and involving some 50 teams, again held as a Swiss. This new format meant that winning the match was important, but schools could no longer rely upon three strong players and two make-weights: the match score counted towards the team total and it was essential to have competent players on low boards as there were lots of easy points down there.
The 1996 Schools' Championships have extended still further the number of schools qualifying for the next stage, as local heats have been held throughout the country, the prize being a place in the semifinal stage at Pontin's, Camber Sands, in the south of England or Rhyl for the Northern Counties. Two of these heats took place in Essex, at Temple Sutton School, Southend, and St. Benedict's School, Colchester.
The majority of the teams in these two heats came from Essex, although there were three exceptions: it appeared that there was some overspill in the Surrey area, or perhaps weaker Surrey schools felt that their chances of qualifying for the semi-finals would be greater against Essex schools!
The Temple Sutton event turned into an organiser's nightmare, as it initially appeared that an odd number of teams would be playing in the under-11 section. Temple Sutton produced a second team at short notice, and all would have been well other than that the Elm Green (Danbury) teams dropped out, contacting the school some 10 minutes after the first round had started. Roger Sharman, who was controlling the event, therefore had to pair teams in the normal way in the first instance and then, for the three lowest scoring teams at the start of each round, organise a jamboree. Roger managed this, but it left him with the somewhat unsatisfactory final round pairing of Temple Sutton A v Temple Sutton B. This, of course, resulted in a 5 - 0 victory for the A team, assuring them of first place in the under-11s with a total of 16/20. Boards 1, 2 and 5 each scored 4/4, whereas boards 3 and 4 scored the other four points. The other qualifiers to the semifinals were Chingford school, who scored a very respectable 15, and Danbury Park (13½). Briscoe (Basildon) were a trifle unfortunate, as they played all of the top three and faild to qualify, whereas Temple Sutton A and Chingford did not play one another.
In the under-9s, the absence of the Elm Green school ensured that the event became a 5-team all-play-all, much the best way of deciding matters, but because one team sits out each round, the time per game had to be reduced so that a fifth round could be played. Three teams qualified for the semi-finals. Temple Sutton A, who must be one of the teams to watch, scored 18½/20, dropping points against Danes Hill (Surrey) who finished on 13½. Chingford scored 10 to take the other qualifying place ahead of Temple Sutton B and Danbury Park.
The event at St. Benedicts took place a week later than that at Temple Sutton. St. Teresa's (Colchester) have traditionally been the strongest team here, and at under-11 level they underlined a certain superiority as they beat Ipswich Prep 4 - 1 in the final round. This was an exciting match, as Liam Mullen established a winning position over James O'Connell (son of Kevin). Liam is not the most placid of players under time pressure and the hand that moves the piece performs numerous unnecessary gyrations prior to making the move. Liam analysed correctly that he had a mating attack and he did indeed make all the correct moves, but he continued all kinds of superfluous considerations when there was clearly only one sensible move, finally delivering mate with only 9 seconds of his original 40 minutes left. This is putting far too much trust in the accuracy of ancient Essex Chess Association clocks!
By far the best game of this round was Katie Bates' demolition job on Suffolk's top under-11, Alex Barnes. Alex, playing on the black side of a Giuoco Piano, accepted two pawns at the expense of development and can hardly have been over-surprised when he found that he had to give up a rook and a piece, and of course that merely delayed mate rather than preventing it.
The qualifiers at under-11 level were St. Teresa's (17/20), Thorpe Hall (13½), Ipswich (12½) and Christchurch (Surrey) with 11.
The revelation of the tournament was the performance of the Thorpe Hall (Walthamstow) school, whose under-9s even succeeded in outscoring Temple Sutton's. All of their players were unbeaten to leave them on 19/20, including a most unkind 5 - 0 thrashing of Newbury Park school, whose team won the under-11 event in the 1970s. Jason Klimach was the top board for Newbury Park, and he was a piece up against Ilford club colleague Stewart Trent. Stewart succeeded in pinning Jason's knight to his rook and then won the piece and afterwards the game. St. Teresa's finished in second place on 12 and a three-way tie on 11 sent Newbury Park, Home Farm (Colchester) and Ipswich Prep through to the next stage.