In Richard Dembo's dense and engrossing "Dangerous Moves," madness, melancholy and international politics explode within the small verge of a chessboard. With fine performances from a cast of international all-stars, it's a superbly crafted ode to obsession.

Akiva Liebskind (Michel Piccoli), a Soviet Jew, reigns as the world's chess champion, but he's faced with a bum ticker and a young, mercurial challenger, Pavius Fromm (Alexandre Arbatt). Fromm abandoned the Motherland years earlier -- one of the Russians wryly calls him a "dissident superstar" -- and he abandoned his wife (Liv Ullmann) as well. Liebskind's wife (Leslie Caron), on the other hand, sticks to him like a plumber's helper, but she can never get truly close to him -- 64 squares stand between them.

The opponents couldn't be more different. Piccoli's Liebskind is a masterful creation -- he seems to be a kindly old man, talking in epigrams ("We all destroy ourselves more or less deliberately; the important thing is to enjoy it"). But in triumph, his eyes flash with guile. Dignified and fastidious (he wears white gloves to the matches), he masks with his seigniorial calm the heart of a wolf.

Arbatt, with a mane of hair flowing off the palisade of his forehead, makes Fromm into a reckless, hubristic paranoid, suspicious of his allies, searching his house for microphones. Where Liebskind is prompt, Fromm is habitually late, swaggering into the auditorium in loose-cut linen, the grandmaster as rock star.

There's a timeless appeal built in to this sort of cagey veteran versus brash upstart drama -- "Dangerous Moves" is "The Cincinnati Kid" for highbrows. Dembo keeps it moving along by snapping from one story to the other, and the editing is dreamy. The movie weaves together Liebskind's personal drama with geopolitics; as the champ lists toward death, the Soviets refuse an exit visa to Liebskind's Zionist cardiologist (a fine Pierre Vial as the French Charles Durning). Cinematographer Raoul Coutard shoots all this with a waltzing camera, circles within circles, a metaphor for the grandmasters' intense cogitation.

The movie starts to drag towards the end, particularly after the arrival of an inert Ullman, as puffy here as a poisoned cat. Inherently, the narrative gets itself into a box -- either one or the other is going to win, so there's no surprise. But "Dangerous Moves" gets you inside single-mindedness in a way few films do -- everybody here is toting a portable chessboard (Fromm plays on a corkboard in his pool). And when all the jockeying for position is over, we're left with the small glory of the mind at work, as Fromm and Liebskind talk the moves to each other -- "E4, D4" -- as the image diminishes on the screen.

Dangerous Moves is unrated, but is suitable for a general audience.