NEW YORK -- Zula Golevich practically swallowed his cigarette when he saw the move. Seth Aranson dropped his red plastic chess set. There were gasps of bewilderment, anguished cries of disbelief.

"I have never, never seen such a thing in my life," said one man with a paisley silk foulard wrapped around his neck, staring in horror at a giant pink and blue electronic chessboard on the wall. "This time I think he has finally gone too far."

As a wave of awe and confusion swept across the somber analysis room at the World Chess Championship here, another man, clearly stunned by the brazen tactics of champion Gary Kasparov, simply shouted, "Good grief!" At least a dozen heads nodded in quiet agreement.

One wouldn't exactly expect the gang hanging out here to have much in common with, say, the people who buy corporate boxes to U.S. Open tennis, or tickets to watch the New York Giants. But the Hotel Macklowe -- only a block from Times Square -- looks at times as if it has been airlifted from Graham Greene's Vienna. The audience, mostly middle-aged men in very bad suits, often seems like a cross between a Star Trek convention and the annual meeting of Mensa, the international society of people with too many brain cells. Facial hair is everywhere.

In a city that has nearly banned smoking, the hotel's lobbies, its press room and the conference halls where champions analyze the match have been enveloped permanently in thick blue clouds of tobacco smoke.

English is spoken but not much more frequently than French, and not nearly as much as Russian, the true mother tongue of the chessboard. When aging Soviet grandmaster Victor Korchnoi appeared on Tuesday, wearing a greenish-brown polyester suit and carrying chess pieces in a plastic tote bag, he was surrounded so quickly by adoring fans that he had to appeal in Russian for help.

"The passion these people have for chess is almost impossible to describe," said Rick Hobish, one of the tournament's chief organizers and a man brave enough to admit that he has never played the game. "They all have this look in their eyes, like love or madness. They use the words 'historic' and 'incredible' whenever they talk about the match."

On Monday, the aggressive and domineering Kasparov had once again defied logic and prediction, offering to sacrifice his queen on the 14th move of the third game against challenger Anatoly Karpov. The move, roughly analogous to a presidential candidate declining to enter the California, Michigan and New York primaries, sent dozens of mystified grandmasters scurrying to consult chess encyclopedias.

"I simply can't believe my luck in coming here today," said Roland Abrams, of Albany, who forked out $100 to watch the two Russians butt their brains at the Hudson Theatre, next to the hotel. "You just don't see a queen sacrifice every day of the week."

You're right, Roland. Even here in the international chess world's ultra-fast lane, where Russian and Algebraic are the linguae francae, this match has quickly scaled to dizzying heights. Deep Thought, the IBM chess computer program that has been following the games and predicting their conclusions, found no other move like it in competitive chess history.

At first, experts were appalled and assumed that the stolid Karpov -- who collects stamps with the same devotion with which he plays chess -- would seize the advantage. But Kasparov's chief spin doctor, Soviet grandmaster Mikhail Gurevich, quickly appeared in the press room, wearing a silent, but knowing smile.

"Tell us, Misha, tell us what he did!" several world-class chess players shouted at once. Nobody really expected Gurevich to talk, chess being a game of stupefying secrecy and combativeness. But he dispelled all fears that his man had lost his grip simply by showing up and slapping a few backs.

"Look, nobody put a gun to his head and said 'make this move,' " said Arthur Bisguier, a former U.S. chess champion, who admitted to a full house listening to his analysis that Kasparov is the only world champ of modern times that he has not played -- and lost to. "It has to be viewed as a cunning initiative."

By this time, Bisquier's lecture hall, and two others sponsored by the U.S. Chess Federation, were filled beyond capacity. Dozens of players, many of them holding magnetic chess sets so they could move along with Karpov and Kasparov, had joined the evening crowd.

The play begins at 5:30 every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. If a game is not concluded in five hours it continues the next day. There are three ways to watch the match, each compelling but different. Inside the Hudson Theatre, where tickets go from $25 to $100 per game, one can watch the players in the flesh. In the adjacent hotel, chess fans can congregate in the halls and the analysis rooms to hear grandmasters deliver instant commentary. On the eighth floor of the hotel, reporters and true chess aficionados also gather to follow the match.

In the Hudson Theatre, at the appointed moment, the two men -- first the diminutive challenger Karpov and then the burly champion Kasparov -- enter the stage. That is as dynamic as they get. From then on it is strictly tension city, to paraphrase another sportsman, as the two sit separated by inches, staring with burning intensity at the board. Above them a huge electronic board and two monitors record every move and position. With infrared headphones, ticket holders can listen to experts comment throughout the game.

But the real action is in the halls of the Macklowe. Hospitality suites abound, filled with food, drinks and chess experts. On the fifth floor of the newly renovated art deco hotel, the chess federation sponsors several analysis rooms and a bookstore where fans can buy everything from bumper stickers ("Push Pawns, Not Drugs") to clocks, buttons and chess art, and where they can choose among at least four biographies of Kasparov and such works by Karpov as "Chess Is My Life."

The eighth floor is divided into a bar, a filing area for the press -- despite recent economic problems, Tass sent two correspondents -- and a large space where the youthful grandmaster Patrick Wolff offers analysis and interpretation. As he talks, a 30-inch Mitsubishi DiamondVision color monitor displays every move that is made down in the theater. Another 19-inch Sony monitor is used for variations, like little jazz riffs, that spectators suggest might work.

"It's exhilarating," said Fred Wilson, whose bookstore is the only one in New York that sells only chess books (and paraphernalia). "There is Soltis and Gurevich and Shirazi and Krogius. It's like standing in the hall of fame."

He waved his hand at the players, feverishly working out new variations and defenses, chatting and drinking. At any moment there might be 10 or 12 of the world's 300 grandmasters in the press area, playing out moves with each other in anticipation of a Karpov retort or a Kasparov thrust.

"No, no, he has no moves, he cannot succeed," said Roman Dzindzichashvili, a Russian-born grandmaster now living in the United States, as he pondered Karpov's possibilities on Tuesday. He and Korchnoi quickly played several possible variations before agreeing that the third game would end in a draw, which it did.

"I knew Kasparov would be exciting," said Marc Berman, a 15-year-old Westchester student who volunteered to help out in the press room by typing moves into the computer so that they can be faxed around the world.

"But I had expected Karpov to be wily too," the teenager, clad in a flannel shirt and a German chess T-shirt, continued. "But so far he is a real disappointment. He is playing far too passively for a match like this."