The Southern Counties' under-18 Championship took place at the Watford Grammar School, and Essex duly provided two teams. This is a curiously anachronistic tournament. Firstly, there is a "mixed" team tournament of 12 boards, which in most cases is occupied entirely by boys, and there is a girls' team tournament, which isn't. Since the two events occur side by side, those girls who are strong enough to play in the mixed team clearly can't do both. In addition to this, there is a distinction between "Major" and "Minor" counties but nobody yet has been able to explain to me precisely what it is. Suffice it to say that Essex, Kent, Middlesex and Surrey are considered to be Major while Oxfordshire, Berkshire, Sussex, Buckinghamshire and Hertfordshire are Minor. It didn't seem to matter very much that in some cases the Minor counties were considerably stronger than the Major, and Middlesex failed to provide a team at all for the Mixed Championships.

The Essex cause was not helped by the absence of a number of key players. We have entered teams into this event almost every year for the past 10, and almost every year the team has been supported by younger players than one would wish. Those same players, now that they are approaching the age of 18, are a great deal stronger and would constitute a fearsome team, but for one reason or another declined the invitation to play. That is not to say that all the players representing Essex were second choice, but all were playing at least two boards higher than might have been the case: indeed, had the best team been available and placed in grade order, Lawrence Trent would have found himself on board 11 rather than his actual position of board 4.

However, problems of team selection disappear once the players get down to business and it was remarkable how the Essex players produced some very fine chess against opposition who should, according to the grades, have completely blown them away. Indeed, in Bobby Payne's case it looked as though his game would be very brief and painful as Rosalind Keiran (Kent), graded 153 to Bobby's 118 and also four years his senior, launched a vicious attack on the pinned c3 knight and it was hard to see how white could avoid heavy material loss. Bobby was the Dunkirk Spirit personified and gradually the rearguard action paid off and the maurauding hordes were pushed back. When a draw was finally agreed, Bobby may even have had the advantage.

Graham Walker was perhaps the unluckiest player of the afternoon. He too was outgraded by 35 points by a much older opponent. Graham sacrificed a piece for two pawns against the Stonewall Dutch, and then proceeded to invade with queen, rook and bishop along the g and h files. The attack was going beautifully and a small crowd had gathered to witness the kill. Graham had done all the hard work and had a forced mate. He played the first move but then much to the disappointment of the watching crowd, several of whom were from Kent, failed to play 20 Rxe6 mate, instead dropping his queen back a square. Even after this oversight white was still in with a good chance, but the queens were exchanged and black's material advantage became decisive.

Lawrence Trent played the Dragon against Alvin Kissoon (Kent) and they explored a line in which black gives up his queen for rook and bishop. With just queen, rook and five pawns against two rooks, a bishop and five pawns, white's exposed king makes it impossible for him to exploit his notional material advantage; and black cannot invade with his rooks because white's queen would immediately give herself up for them and the resulting ending of R v B would be won for white so a draw was agreed. Thomas O'Brien achieved a creditable draw against Michael Duggan (Surrey).

The one game in which Essex held the advantage from start to finish was Josiah Lutton's on board 10. Josiah won the exchange, kept it, shielded his slightly shaky king from attack and then mated his opponent. Robert Giddens agreed a draw in a position which subsequent analysis showed to be favourable to him.

The last Essex game to finish was Iain Gunn's. Iain, again outgraded by 33 points, was under some considerable pressure for much of the game, and when his opponent's a-pawn reached the seventh rank, he had to be extremely careful. However, Iain had a passed pawn of his own and eventually white had to abandon his pawn in order to stop black's. The game finished when the white summoned the controller in the last two minutes of a 4.5 hour match to claim that black, who was now a pawn up, could not win my normal means. The game was agreed drawn to give Essex a final tally of 4.5 / 12.

In the girls' event, Essex were heavily beaten by strong Surrey and Middlesex teams. The top board game between Ellen Walker and Iva Anguelova was very tense but the Essex player was mated after some four hours' play. The Essex board 2, Heather Walker (grade 77, age 11), found herself sitting opposite Britain's highest-rated under-18 girl, but Ruth Bates (graded 161) was unable to obtain a significant advantage. Although black won a pawn, Heather's rooks were so dangerous that it was not clear how Ruth was to take advantage of her extra material. Indeed, Heather had the opportunity to invade the 8th rank and had she done so the game would probably have been drawn, but after some 40 moves and 3.5 hours, she allowed the exchange of rooks and the ending was easily won for Black.

White - Graham Walker (Essex) Black - Lee Bennett (Kent)

1.d4 d5 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 f5 4.Nf3 c6 5.Bg5 Nf6 6.e3 Bd6 7.Be2 Nbd7 8.c5 Bc7 9.b4 0-0 10.0-0 h6 11.Bh4 g5 12.Nxg5 hxg5 13.Bxg5 Qe7 14.f4 Qh7 15.Rf3 Kf7 16.Rh3 Qg8 17.Rh6 Ke8 18.Bh5+ Nxh5 19.Qxh5+ Qf7 20.Qh4?? (Rxe6) Rg8 21.Rh7 Rg7 22.Rh8+ Rg8 23.Rf1 Rxh8 24.Qxh8+ Qf8 25.Qh4 b6 26.Rf3 bxc5 27.dxc5 Ba6 28.Rg3 Bd8 29.Qh5+ Qf7 30.Qh8+ Nf8 31.Bh6 Bf6 32.Qxf8+ Qxf8 33.Bxf8 Kxf8 and black won.