The Times Schools' Championships is organised into regional zones in the early stages and the zonal matches are now drawing to a close. Most of Essex, Hertfordshire and adjacent London Boroughs constitute Zone 24, and 16 schools (a very convenient number for a knockout) entered.

These Championships are handicapped in favour of younger teams, and for the past two seasons Temple Sutton School, Southend, has won this zone. The fact that Temple Sutton is a primary school means that secondary schools have to win by enormous margins. However, only once during that period did Temple Sutton need the help of the handicap. There is no doubt that their team was excellent, having won the National under 9 Championship and finished 3rd in the National under 11 Championship in that time, but the fact that the older pupils were unable to win the matches says a good deal about the strength of secondary schools' chess in this area.

There were no upsets in the first round, although King Edward VI, Chelmsford, will have breathed a sigh of relief to have beaten Temple Sutton. Because the age difference between the two teams was two years, King Edward were obliged to win by two clear points and this they did, in one game rather luckily. Similarly Barking Abbey were just able to scrape through against Southend Girls. Southend Boys completely outclassed King John (Thundersly), defaulting board 6 but able to field 5 County players on the remaining boards despite Simon Armour's absence. King Harold (Waltham Abbey), who were last season's losing finalists in this zone, scraped through on board count against Bancrofts, at one time a force to be reckoned with, and King Solomon High (Ilford), with Lawrence Trent on board 1 and James Berlin on board 2, were far too good for Forest.. The remaining match, between Bishops Stortford High and Mark Hall (Harlow) was an easy win for the strongest team in last year's competition: Bishop Stortford have Christopher Lovisa on board 1 and Robert Morris on two as well as some other respectably good players lower down, but although they beat Temple Sutton 4.5 - 1.5 last season, Temple Sutton went through on age.

Round 2 in this year's competition saw another win for King Solomons, as they were two years yonger than Barking Abbey in a 3 - 3 tie over the board. King Edward, who have some promise in years 7 and 8 with the two Alistairs, Hung and Baldwin, as well as Sammy Trinh and Christopher Burlton, were almost good enough to knock out Bishops Stortford High: the Hertfordshire side won 5 - 1, but had they lost another game King Edward would have been through. Valentine's and St. Mary's, both of whom won by default in round 1, were very little different in age and this proved to be an easy win for Valentines. Southend High generally outclassed King Harold, with a final score of 5 - 1. Simon Armour, suffering from a very heavy cold, was content to agree a quick draw with Dominic Allen, and Graham Walker, Matthew & Nicholas Jellett and James Griggs all won easily enough. However, Michael Bridger made very heavy weather of his game against Victoria Allen, (he also struggled against Elliott Pearman in the King John match, although winning eventually). Victoria accepted Michael's offer of a draw in a position in which she could have won Michael's queen for a rook through a tactic based upon Michael's back rank weakness.

The semi-finals did the right thing by keeping the Bishops Stortford v Southend match in abeyance. Bishops Stortford brushed Valentine's aside with predictable ease, but some high class chess was a possibility in the King Solomon's v Southend High encounter. Lawrence Trent was to play Simon Armour, both players of course having won British Championships in their time, and James Berlin was to meet either Michael Bridger or Graham Walker. In the end Michael played board 2 for Southend, but the top two games were agreed drawn after King Solomon caved in on the bottom four boards, thereby allowing Southend to travel back as early as possible in some particularly objectionable weather.

This leads us into the Zone Final, Southend v Bishops Stortford. This is probably Bishops Stortford's last chance to progress to the National Stages, as their team is too old to take advantage of any age handicap and their one player of true ability, Christopher Lovisa, is now 17 and will be off to University next year. Indeed, on current ages Bishops Stortford will need to win by a margin of at least 4.5 - 1.5, and this must surely be beyond them: that was all they could manage against Temple Sutton last season. Then, Matthew and Nicholas Jellett were on boards 1 and 3. This year, a year older and in their new school, they will be on boards 4 and 5. Southend High, whose team consists almost exclusively of former Temple Sutton pupils (Michael Bridger is the exception) will surely win the zone. Let us hope that they can make good progress through the National stages as well: in 1997 and 1998, Temple Sutton were soundly thrashed in the first round.

Zone 24 results (average age in parentheses)

ROUND 1: Barking Abbey (15.7) 4 Southend Girls (13.6) 2; Bishop Stortford High (16.7) 5 Mark Hall (13.1) ;
King Solomon High (14.0) 3 Forest (15.11) 2; King Harold (12.6) 3 Bancrofts (12.10) 3 (won on board count);
King Edward VI (12.9) 4 Temple Sutton (10.4) 2; Valentine w.o., Heathcote withdrew ;
Southend Boys (12.3) 5 King John (12.11) 1; St Mary's w.o.. Chigwell withdrew

ROUND 2: King Solomon High (14.0) 3 Barking Abbey (16.3) 3;
Bishop Stortford High (16.5) 5
King Edward VI (13.4) 1; Valentine (13.5) 5 St Mary's (12.10) 1;
Southend Boys 5 King Harold 1

SEMIFINAL: Bishop Stortford High (16.6) 6 Valentines (13.7) 0; Southend Boys (13.6) 5 King Solomon High (13.10) 1

FINAL: Southend Boys v Bishop Stortford High (February 3rd)

Lovisa,C - Walker,G [E70] Basildon Junior, 1995

1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 g6 3.Nc3 Bg7 4.e4 d6 5.Bg5 c5 6.dxc5 0-0 7.f4 dxc5 8.Qxd8 Rxd8 9.e5 Nh5 10.Nd5 Nc6 11.Bxe7 Nxe7 12.Nxe7+ Kh8 13.Nd5 Be6 14.Nc7 Rac8 15.Nxe6 fxe6 16.Ne2 Rf8 17.g3 g5 18.Rg1 gxf4 19.g4 f3 20.gxh5 f2+ 21.Kd2 Rcd8+ 22.Kc2 fxg1Q 23.Nxg1 Bxe5 24.Nh3 Bxh2 25.Ng5 Rf2+ 26.Kb3 e5 27.h6 Rdd2 28.Rb1 Bf4 29.Ne4 Rf3+ 30.Ka4 Rd4 31.Be2 Re3 32.Nf6 Rxe2 33.Rg1 b5+ 34.Ka5 Rd8 35.Rg7

35 ...Bd2+ 36.Kxb5 Rb8+ 37.Ka4 Rb4+ 38.Ka3 Re3+ 39.b3 Bc1# 0-1