"I have a secret move for the next time he comes around," Art Buchwald said, staring glumly at the man in a gray business suit who was walking slowly from table to table on the other side of the large, high-ceilinged room. Like a roomful of other Washingtonians last night, Buchwald was sitting in front of a chess board staring at a position that did not look promising. The man across the room was Lev Alburt, a Soviet defector and current U.S. chess champion, playing simultaneously against as many opponents as could be crammed into a meeting room of the Russell Senate Office Building.

Buchwald was in trouble. Earlier, he had been joking about chess (his favorite pastime) and politics (which fuels most of his humor). "We need $100 million to buy new chess sets for the contras," he told a fan between moves -- but he didn't laugh once in the whole evening. When Alburt's first victim gave up, after playing for about an hour, he sighed with relief: "Well, I won't be the first one to go out." Then he got stubborn when the situation began to look bad. "With you or you," he told a couple of friends, "I would concede -- not with him. I paid 25 bucks to play this game, and I should get my money's worth."

But when Alburt came around again, Buchwald's surprise move was a graceful acceptance of the inevitable; he tipped his king over on its side, signifying a lost game, and reached out to shake his opponent's hand. He had lasted 20 moves, for which he paid at a rate of $1.25 per move.

In four hours on his feet, walking from table to table and moving instantly, almost without thinking, Alburt played 40 opponents and beat 35, with three draws. He lost to two Washington players, Sam Greenlaw and Vincent Moore. As he leaned over to shake Greenlaw's hand, Greenlaw told him, "I've done the same thing to Karpov," and Alburt smiled. "Then I'm in good company," he said. He was an even more graceful winner, pausing to give a few words of comfort or advice to his opponents and signing their score sheets as a souvenir.

But in the subtext of the recreational evening, a grimmer game was being played. A hand-lettered sign reading "Free Boris Gulko" was prominently displayed in the playing room, signifying that this event was the beginning of a campaign to help one of the world's leading players, a former Russian champion and a friend of Alburt, who has been trying to emigrate since 1979 and has been denied an exit visa.

"It's a chess game with the Politburo," explained Edward Lozansky, director of the Sakharov Institute. "We are making publicity about Gulko and we will give the Politburo its turn to move. Next month, we will have a chess tournament in Berne during the meetings on the Helsinki Accords, and Gulko is invited to participate. If he is not allowed to leave, it will be embarrassing for the Soviets, and he will try to play by phone from Moscow. If they cut off his phone conection, that will mean more publicity. If they're smart, the Soviets will simply tell Gulko, 'Pack and get out.' "