IT'S the ultimate pressure cooker: the two greatest chess players of our time locked in a grim, silent battle of wits and wills for the world championship one or the other has held since 1975. Night after night, hour after hour, titleholder Garry Kasparov and challenger Anatoly Karpov face each other across the board - thinking, thinking, constantly searching for the minute advantage that may mean victory - while guarding against the tiny slip that can be turned into loss.
This scene was played out time and again here at the newly restored Hudson Theatre in midtown Manhattan, where the first half of the current 24-game match held center stage for the past several weeks. No wonder each grandmaster cracked on more than one occasion during the United States portion of the $3 million duel, which ended last week with the score tied 6-6 as the combatants moved on to Lyon, France, to renew the struggle.
Champion Kasparov broke through early, winning Game 2 with a brilliant attack. Karpov evened matters in Game 7, seizing his opportunity when Kasparov grew impatient and careless. The rest of the games have been drawn, though the players have alternately courted trouble or missed winning chances.
``It's been a weird match so far,'' says Patrick Wolff, the young American grandmaster who handled the commentary at the theater. ``They play fantastic chess at times, then suddenly make terrible moves. The juxtaposition is really hard to understand.
``The quality of the first five games was the best I've ever seen in a world championship match,'' Wolff says. ``The next four games were outrageous - there's no other way to describe it. Now they seem to be getting back to a high level again.''
Blunders are always part of these matches, the result of tension and fatigue. Some of the mistakes here have been particularly damaging, costing each player points. And to the surprise of many observers, it is the champion who has been shakier so far.
``Kasparov seems better prepared theoretically,'' says another prominent young American grandmaster, Max Dlugy, ``but Karpov appears steadier psychologically and emotionally.''
The rivalry of these two Soviet grandmasters both on and off the board has attained legendary proportions over the last five years (see accompanying story). And indeed they appear to be virtual opposites in many respects.
Karpov is the ``company man,'' an active supporter of the Communist Party and longtime darling of the Kremlin. Kasparov is the self-proclaimed ``Child of Change,'' a native of Baku in the restive Azerbaijan Republic, half-Jewish by birth, outspoken critic of previous Soviet policies, and an early supporter of glasnost and perestroika.
These differences translate to the chessboard, where Karpov excels in solid, positional play while Kasparov favors more aggressive and risky positions.
Kasparov ended Karpov's 10-year reign as champion in 1985 and successfully defended the title against his archrival twice. Most observers expected a similar result this time, and the closeness of the match has been a surprise to many - but not to Jack Collins, the celebrated New York master and chess teacher best remembered as Bobby Fischer's first mentor. He says even grandmasters are so captivated by Kasparov's play that they tend to underestimate his opponents.
`There's no comparison'
``People get carried away with Kasparov because they like his style better,'' says Collins, ``but the fact is they really are very close in strength.''
Wolff echoes those thoughts: ``It's clear that Karpov is a very strong match player,'' Wolff says. ``He may not be as good as Kasparov in a tournament, but his strength really comes through in these matches.'' In tournament play, contestants compete against each other, each having to deal with many different styles of play.
One commentator who remains unconvinced, however, is current US champion Lev Alburt.
``There's no comparison,'' says Alburt, a Soviet 'emigr'e who has lived in the US for several years. ``Kasparov has been erratic and impetuous, and has made some mistakes because he hasn't played for a while, but he is the one who dictates the course of the game even then. He is much stronger, and they both know it. There's no doubt in my mind that in the end he will win by a decisive score.''
The end, whatever it is, will occur in Lyon, where the match resumes after a two-week hiatus with opening ceremonies on Nov. 23 and Game 13 on Nov. 24. Regardless of the result, one effect of the match was an increased interest in chess in America.
This was the first world championship competition held even partly in the United States since 1907, and as such it created by far the most chess interest here since Fischer's heyday in the late 1960s and early '70s, culminating in his triumph over Boris Spassky for the title in 1972.
For an entire month the theater and the adjoining Hotel Macklowe were the site of an unprecedented chess ``scene.'' Despite a price range of $25 to $100, the 700-seat theater was sold out, or nearly so, for every game. Serious players and casual spectators alike sat silently for hours as the two players, always tastefully dressed in suits and ties, battled it out onstage.
A large screen above the combatants showed the constantly updated position - and flashed the words ``Silence, Please!'' at the slightest murmur in the audience. TV screens provided closeups of the players and the board, while many of the spectators also followed the games on their own pocket sets or rented headsets through which they could hear move-by-move analysis by Wolff and New York master Bruce Pandolfini. Some did both.
Several rooms in the hotel were constantly filled with onlookers as other grandmasters commented on the moves. Some 500 journalists from around the world covered the match.
Corporate sponsors a `first'
``This is a big breakthrough for US chess,'' said Dlugy, who was recently elected president of the US Chess Federation.
``We're getting clippings from all over the country,'' he says. ``Regular coverage of the match, two-page spreads, things we haven't seen since 1972. It gives us a great initiative, and we're looking for ways to continue this renewed interest. It's a tremendous opportunity to grow.''
Dlugy also noted that the presence of major corporate sponsorship is a first for these matches, which have heretofore generally been financed by the host cities. Indeed, the city of Lyon is sponsoring the second half, but the US portion was backed by Interscope, a Los Angeles-based firm with various business interests owned by Frederick W. (Ted) Field, an avid amateur chessplayer who wanted to do something for the game.
Interscope put up an estimated $3 million in all, counting its half of the purse money (which is to be split - $1.7 million to the winner and $1.3 million to the loser), along with such other major outlays as month-long rent for the theater and two floors of the hotel plus transportation, lodging, and other expenses for the players and their sizeable entourages of seconds, trainers, etc., who number a dozen ore more in each camp. This was partly covered, of course, by revenue from ticket sales plus souvenir and food concessions.