NEW YORK — New York - Shortly before 5 p.m. yesterday, detectives from the local precinct swept the three-card monte dealers off the corner of 44th Street and Broadway, making chess, as in the world championship, for a moment the most popular contest in midtown.

Well, it wasn't like the World Series or the Stanley Cup. Champion Garry Kasparov and challenger Anatoly Karpov don't


yet rank in the league of Ali, Frazier or Colts-Giants, at least not here, not yet. The local enthusiasm wasn't obvious, and the crowds were just the ordinary Times Square mess. Given a break in vigilance, the real action may have returned to the card games that spring up like weeds on the sidewalk. A few celebrities slipped in, most notably Steve Martin and Rick Moranis, but the models and the limos, the evidence of the local scene, were scant. Despite the hoopla, it was only after the match began that the last seat was unsold.

The tone had been set Sunday evening when at an introductory banquet, New York's Mayor David Dinkins had more pressing matters to attend to and sent only a message. The mayor of Lyons, France, however, host to the second half of the tournament, found reason to be there.


Thus, yesterday afternoon it was the out-of-towners who held sway. From Maryland and Chicago, from Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Italy and South America they came, dressed casually and often alone. At 2:30 yesterday afternoon, Peter Mahr strolled up to the empty ticket booth. An Austrian philosopher in New York to write a book, he said, "I don't know so many people, but I play sometimes."

Several blocks uptown, the venerable Manhattan Chess Club became a staging area for visiting fans. Three men from Maryland, members of the Rockville Chess Club, had come for the day. "We're here for the same reason you go to the Indianapolis 500," said John Mingos of Potomac. Explaining this to family members, he admitted, can be a challenge. "I don't think they understand the addiction," he said. "It's hard to explain to anyone the intrigue of watching two people stare at one another."

About half past 3, a stout elderly man in a white jacket stopped by the club, eliciting a murmur: Miguel Najdors, an Argentine grand master, who had just arrived in New York to cover the event for a Buenos Aires paper. "After [the World Cup soccer star Maradona]," he explained, chess receives the most attention from his countrymen.

Draping himself behind a chess board, he casually tapped a rook and quietly said, "So who is strong, who is strong." A dozen or so players looked about sheepishly until Bruce Till, formerly a Maryland amateur champion, stepped forward. The game went quickly, with Mr. Till's prospects quickly ruined. "It was fun to see how easy it was," Mr. Till said. "He was looking out the window as he killed me."

Mr. Najdors looked about the rest of the room, "So who is strong," he repeated.

Four blocks from the club, on 53rd and Seventh, the championship may have held the greatest local interest. There, a dozen men can be found every day from 9 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. willing to play chess with all challengers at 50 cents a game. At about 4 p.m., J. C. Wabraian, a surgeon and chess master, who had come from Dallas for the championship, wrapped up a few quick games with the 53rd Street crew. "I got beat," he noted, before walking to the tournament.

The street players remained. They had made arrangements to have the moves relayed to them throughout the evening. There was no consensus on who would win last night's match, though several said they would stand a chance themselves. "I'd whip 'em half to death," said Kenneth Robinson.

"I don't think I could beat 'em unless they slip," said Karl Becks, "but I'd try not to let them beat me."


A tournament organizer, they said, was trying to arrange for them to get tickets for later in the week, but given the chance, they would watch every minute. "When you see the best in the world, you can watch for five hours [the official time limit], you can watch all night," said Herferth Blue Jr.

At about 5:30, a crowd formed at the Hudson Theater, once a burlesque house and subsequently the home of the pre-Carson "Tonight" show. It had recently been refurbished, and the chess match was the opening show.

The two challengers walked out across a small stage before about 550 people and dozens of photographers, briefly bowed and then sat down across a board. Their expressions were impenetrable. To bring more depth to the subtle game, the organizers had resorted to technology. The two tight faces were shown on vast video screens and their moves enlarged upon a huge fuchsia and aqua color board. Occasionally, superimposed the pictures was the word "silence."

In the adjoining Macklowe Hotel, grand masters analyzed every move, and members of the audience were able to listen to commentary on headsets. During the initial hours, the most dramatic gestures were just shifts of small pieces of wood, several inches one way and then another. Still, many cared to see nothing more. Les Bale, who runs a chess club in Chicago, came East just for yesterday evening. "For me," he said, "it's once in a lifetime."