IN JOHN Marshall Park, down behind the Superior Court and across Pennsylvania Avenue from the National Gallery, a chess game has been going on for months. The pace is slow--in fact, the position has not changed at all--perhaps because the two players are life-size bronze statues.

They are dressed in three-piece suits and seem to be lawyers--typical denizens of that neighborhood. One player (White) is older and balding; he looks comfortable and affluent. A key chain is draped across his vest, and in his left hand he still holds a bishop that he has just taken from his opponent. His facial expression is smugly confident, like a man who has just discovered that his lottery ticket is a small winner--a man trying not to show how pleased he is with himself.

His opponent (Black) is younger, perhaps 10 years out of law school, and there is an indefinable air of the Ivy League about his suit, his haircut, his trim, WASP features. His expression is thoughtful, perhaps a shade shocked and worried--but that may be play-acting; it depends on how good an actor (how good a lawyer) he is. He has just lost a bishop, and before that a knight, which lies off the board next to White. But he must have expected to lose it unless he is a complete idiot. He doesn't look like an idiot.

You can tell a lot about a person by the way he plays chess. Sometimes, if the game is not too complicated and you catch it at the right moment, you can even reconstruct a whole game from a single position. It seems reasonably possible in this case--not with geometrical certitude but with a high degree of probability. For example, what happened to White's queen rook? It is out of the game, lying beside the board on Black's side with the two pawns he has captured. But he did not capture it; it was handed to him. It is almost impossible to take a rook early in the game, from its original position, without leaving tracks to show how it was captured and by what. If this game has been played reasonably (which is different from being played logically), there is no black piece on the board that could have captured the rook in the 10 moves played so far. We must assume that White gave the rook away before starting the game.

In fact, everything about the scene indicates that White has a rather low opinion of his opponent--probably thinks of him as a brash kid. Either White has thrown away a move (perhaps by moving his queen twice to a square it could have taken immediately), or--much more likely--he has given his opponent the first move, in a grandstand gesture, while also giving up the rook. On the other hand, he has insisted on being White.

You can almost hear him--"Here, boy, take this castle to make it more interestin'. And while you're at it, take the first move." There may be money on the game; there is no evidence for or against that supposition. But there is certainly a conflict between two generations, two points of view. You could call the statuary group--two human figures and 32 chess pieces--"Age vs. Youth" or "Beating the Establishment."

The 32 pieces are an essential part of the picture; where they are and how they got there. The game is not a classic or tremendously deep, though it has some clever touches. It is the kind of game two lawyers might play on a park bench during lunch hour--or it might be an actual game played in the mid-19th century. Its style has the feeling of that period as clearly as the literary style of Poe, the musical style of Chopin.

Although he has given up a rook and move, White chooses to play the King's Gambit--a risky, swashbuckling opening; a trickster's opening, in which White sacrifices material (still more material!) for an opportunity to develop quickly. He shows a mind essentially of the last century. He also shows contempt for his opponent in every way he can. To his surprise, perhaps, he finds that Black knows the opening--a very obscure variation that was briefly popular in the late 1840s and the 1850s but is no longer mentioned in most books on modern opening theory. Black probably learned it from the games of Paul Morphy, the first American chess prodigy, although the basic concept was developed a bit earlier by Lionel Kiezeritsky. White also knows Morphy's games; his move 6 was first used in one of them.

Let's take a look at the game in a plausible if not an absolutely certain reconstruction. It is given in the algebraic notation that has become standard in recent years. The moves will be found below in the older descriptive notation. (See Source for Charts)