Christmas represents the half-way stage of the five divisions of the Southern Counties' Championships, and unusually at this time of year, all five divisions are wide open. Each team has two objectives: firstly, to qualify for the National stages of the Competition; and secondly, to win the Southern Counties' Championship.

The Open Championships this season is being contested by 9 teams of whom Kent are normally the favourites and Essex tipped to take one of the qualifying places. The Essex Captaincy this season has changed hands: John Cook has decided to step down and Roy Watts, the ECA President, has taken over. So far the season has been one of mixed fortunes as Essex, although heavily outgraded by Sussex, played magnificently to win 10-6, but when they similarly outgraded Buckinghamshire, normally one of the whipping boys of the Southern Counties, it was Buckinghamshire who triumphed by a score of 10.5 - 5.5, largely due to a complete collapes of the Essex middle order. Essex enjoyed a splendid win against Surrey so they are amongst the top three.

Kent have played one more match than Essex, and their margin of victory over Buckinghamshire was rather smaller than one might have expected. Kent lost to Cambridgeshire, who are always very hard to beat in home matches played during the University term, and in this Neil MacDonald provided the only Kent win in the top half, against Jonathan Mestel, whereas Brian Kelly, Mark Ferguson, Harriet Hunt, James Vigus, David Moskovich and Jack Rudd, a sextet of players whose grades are all at least 10 times their ages, all won for Cambridgeshire. To have James Vigus and David Moskovich batting for the opposition must have been hard for the Kent Captain, as he is more accustomed to having them on his side.

John Philpott's all-conquering under-175 team, for the second year running defending its National Championship, is not finding life so straightforward this year. The only thing they have lost during the past two seasons is the toss, and although they are still at the head of the table, there is very little separating top from bottom. The most one-sided matches so far have been two 9 - 7 wins, one of these by Essex. Essex and Sussex each have a win and two draws to their names, but Sussex won 8.5 - 7.5, hence Essex's leadership at present. There are only four teams in this division, the other two being Surrey and Middlesex, so they play each other twice.

There are five teams contesting the under-150 Championship, in which the Essex captain is your correspondent. Each team has so far played just two matches, and again it is very tight. Essex are actually at the foot of the table, having drawn 8 - 8 with Sussex in controversial circumstances after a misapplication of the rapidplay finish rules in which the SCCU Rules & Appeals sub-committee ruled in favour of Sussex, and a disappointing 9 - 7 loss against Hertfordshire, who were as surprised by their win as the Essex players were disappointed by it: until the last few minutes the match had appeared to be going Essex's way by the same score. Sussex lead the table with Herts in second place, so if Essex can win their three remaining matches then they stand a good chance of one of the qualifying places.

It is much too early to tell what is happening in the under-125 division. Richard Joyce's team deserves some good fortune, and in the only match they have played so far, they appear to have had it with a thumping 12.5 - 3.5 win away to Sussex. Kent are currently leading the table with two wins from 3 matches, and it may be significant that it was Sussex who beat Kent.

Tony O'Toole has taken over as Captain of the under-100 team, and so far everything has gone well, with two wins and one tied match, against Herts. This should certainly be sufficient to put them through to the National stages of the Competition, but their one remaining match is against Surrey, who are the only other unbeaten side. This is almost a replay of last year's competition when your correspondent was the Essex Captain. Then Surrey won the SCCU title and with it the Harry Woolverton Trophy amid considerable controversy (such misfortunes seem to follow me around!) when the tie-break was skewed in Surrey's favour because another team defaulted an entire match. Essex had the chance in the semi-finals of the National stage to prove who was the better side, and Surrey returned home licking their wounds after an 8 - 4 drubbing whereas Essex went on to thrash Merseyside in the final by a score of 9.5 - 2.5.

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The Islington Congress represents the final weekend of the 1998 Onyx Grand Prix, which is currently led by Mark Hebden with Keith Arkell second, closely followed by James Plaskett. The previous weekend, Hebden consolidated his position with an excellent result in the Nuneaton Rapidplay while Keith Arkell was scoring 5/5 in Barnet. Islington, because of its greater prize money, is worth octuple points, so 100% would more or less decide the Grand Prix for any of the top three. At the start of the final round, it was Danny Gormally who had been making the running, as Hebden had been held to a draw by Bogdan Lalic. Plaskett had lost to Gormally, and this led to a final round encounter between former British Champion James Plaskett and Ilford Club's 12-year-old Lawrence Trent, both being on 3 / 4. This was Lawrence's first encounter against a Grandmaster in tournament play and although the result was as expected, Plaskett had a tough fight on his hands. Black would probably have had an advantage had he exchanged on g4 on move 18. Incredibly, Plaskett failed to spot the simple 20 Rxd7 Bxd7 21 Nc5, winning two pieces for a rook.

Plaskett, J - Trent, L.

Sicilian Defence

Islington Open 1998

1.e4 c5 2.Nc3 Nc6 3.Nf3 g6 4.d4 cxd4 5.Nxd4 Bg7 6.Be3 d6 7.Qd2 Nf6 8.f3 0-0 9.0-0-0 d5 10.exd5 Nxd5 11.Nxc6 bxc6 12.Bd4 e5 13.Bc5 Be6 14.Ne4 Re8 15.h4 h5 16.c4 Nb6 17.Qf2 Nd7 18.g4 Qa5 19.Ba3 Rab8 20.g5 Qa4 21.Qc2 Qxc2+ 22.Kxc2 Bf5 23.Bh3 Bxh3 24.Rxh3 Nf8 25.Bxf8 Kxf8 26.Rd6 Re6 27.Rxe6 fxe6 28.Rh2 Rd8 29.Rd2 Rd4 30.Rxd4 exd4 31.Kd3 Be5 32.b4 Ke7 33.a4 a6 34.a5 Kd8 35.Nc5 Bg3 36.Nxa6 Bxh4 37.Nc5 Kc8 38.b5 Bxg5 39.a6 Kb8 40.b6 Bf4 41.Nxe6 1-0

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