Pope John Paul II plays Othello. So do Walter Cronkite, Barry Manilow, serveral New York Yankees and millions of Japanese.

The board game was invented in Japan, where newspapers devote columns to its strategy as American papers do to bridge.

Othello's rules are simple: Two players, Black and White, square off over a chessboard. They use 64 disks painted black on one side, white on the other. At the end of the game, the person with the most number of disks turned to his or her color wins.

A player flips over a disk by sandwiching it in between two other disks: By placing two white disks around one black one, the black side switches to white.

It doesn't take longer than a game or two, even for a child or a non-gamester, to learn.. But with its endless number of strategies and last-minute surprises, Othello fascinates enough players to spawn a stream of obtuse articles about tactics, a season of international tournaments and an association which aims to further Othello-playing in the United States.

The association has its work cut out for it. when Mark Weinberg, president of the United States Othello Association, tells people he plays Othello, he says they look at him politely and ask, "Oh, do you play any other roles?"

Now, really. Do chess players suffer such indentity problems?

Goro Hasegawa, a Japanese chemist, devised Othello in 1973, adapting it from the ancient Oriental game of Go. His father, a professor of English literature, named it "Othello" after his favorite Shakespearean character.

Its virtues surpass chess and backgammon put together, says player Elliot Jacobs. And unlike some chess games, Othello doesn't take much more than an hour. Jacobs is a mathematics professor from Florida and one half of a dual-playing marriage. His wife Carol placed second in the world championship tournament last year.

He traveled to Washington to compete this summer in order to avoid playing against his wife. The tournament took place in a dustry room in the Maryland University Student Union. Seventeen men and one woman silently leaned over their Othello boards, while the shouts of students could be heard on the campus two flights below.

James Harvin, a insurance claims adjustor from Southeast Washington, wandered into the tournament because he remembered enjoying the game when he played it at his alma mater, Lincoln University.

"I thought I'd give a tournament a try," he said. "I didn't have anything else to do today."

David Toth's sister Donna had driven him from New Jersey to compete. She served not only as chauffeur but also as coach and potato-chip supplier throughout the day.

As other players walked into the room, Donna eyed them closely, as if she could predict their Othello skills on the basis of their swagger. David, a tall, thin high school student, sat next to her, peaceably drinkng a Coke and eating a doughnut.

"Mom and I were at a mall where there was an Othello demontration going on," he said. "Mom told me to join in, because she thought I'd lose."

"When our family got the game, David started creaming us all," Donna added proudly.

Not everyone who owns an Othello board competes in tournaments, of course. Washington department stores stock thousands of sets, especially around the holiday season, and usually sell them all.

"We have a lot of closet players," concedes Weinberg. "By that I mean, people receive it for a gift and then stick it in their closet because they have no one to play with."

Weinberg wants to turn Othello into another backgammon -- a game that can be seen at bars or in the park at lunchtime and not just at staged tournaments. He leaves his sets, most of which he has won, out on the coffee table of his suburban Maryland home. When he and his wife give a party, there are always at least a few people who escape the chit-chat and play a game or two. But he figures that's more sociable for a guest than to hole up and watch "Saturday Night Live."