LYON, FRANCE -- The liveliest action at the World Chess Championship takes place in the Press Room of the Palais des Congres. Of course, in chess, action is a manner of speaking.

In one corner of the press center, a group of well-coifed Soviets (on-site hair care is offered for journalists and "personalities" by the Alain Yvette salon of downtown Lyon) is ruminating over paper chessboards set up to follow the game going on in an auditorium below. Television monitors keep track: On this day, challenger Anatoly Karpov, playing with black, has been thinking for 43 minutes over a move by defending champion Gary Kasparov, the queen to c4 position (third row in from left on the board, four spaces up from the bottom).

Everyone's a maven. Kadjar Petrosian, Kasparov's cook, goes through the possible ripostes with Andre Lilienthal, a Soviet grandmaster with flowing white hair and a pin-striped suit. (All of the Soviets wear suits with lots of lapel pins; the other journalists, advisers and experts wear sports clothes that look like they have not been changed in two weeks, since the second round of the championship began here.)

Nearby, the Reuter reporter is standing behind one from the Associated Press, who stares at the current playing position across from an Israeli freelancer. The New Yorker reporter is taking assiduous notes. They are all trying to guess Karpov's response. He's been at it for 54 minutes.

Maurice Ashley, a consultant on the American television show "Chess," gives up and crosses the cultural divide. "It's bad news for black. This bishop really {stinks}," he says to Alexander Roshal, an editor from Izvestia who wrote a book on chess with Karpov. "He has no move."

Roshal agrees with a shrug. "He played too fast."

No problem now on that score. Karpov takes 63 minutes before deciding to move his queen to c8. Chess must be the only sport where the physical risk consists of getting bedsores.

Meanwhile, the auditorium is packed with young and old. It is as silent as a cemetery but crackles with the electricity of a magnetic field. Everybody's sweating.

A spotlight on the small center stage illuminates the two combatants, Karpov, known in the chess world as "The Magician," and Kasparov, "The Genius." If looks could kill, Kasparov would by now have murdered every piece on the board. He focuses his stare by assuming a favored position, flattening his palms on either side of his head and squeezing; presumably it helps him concentrate or encourages productive thought.

Karpov is in his own favored position, staring off to the right, to the left, anywhere but at the board. Instead of staring at the players, the audience stares at two large screens displaying the game board. So it goes for five hours.

The spectators include children from regional chess clubs who have shown up in force, groups of 11- and 12-year-olds who giggle and begin chasing one another when they leave the auditorium. Far more serious are their Eastern European counterparts, among them Gabriel Schwartzman, 14, Romania's top chess player.

"I began playing chess when I was 2 years old; now I train about five or six hours a day," he says, with the precociousness of a genius-in-training. "I could have had a sponsor when I was 10, but {ex-leader Nicolae} Ceausescu would not let me sign {a contract}. Now it's a bit late to look for a sponsor." He looks enviously at a new "Dataram" computer program being hawked in the press room; it has a database of 50,000 chess games and all the world championships ever played, but costs $900. Schwartzman says he cannot even afford a computer.

About 100 chess lovers -- all male except for two women studying a map in a corner -- are gathered across the hall in the Commentary Room. Many of them are from Lyon, whose mayor, Michel Noir, is a fan of the game. Chessmaster Bachar Kouatly from nearby Grenoble persuaded Noir, Karpov and Kasparov to have the second half of the tournament in Lyon. Anyone in France can follow the game from home by checking the Minitel, a post office-issued computer information network.

A few in the audience take move-by-move notes or follow along on tiny magnetic chessboards, but most just listen. Still, the brain activity in the room is intense, as the body language indicates: The Bite (teeth on lower lip); The Squint (eyes scrunched, right hand stretched behind head, picking at strands of hair); The Tug (one hand covering the mouth, while the other tugs at nose); The Slide (thumb and index finger glide along nose, occasionally probing at nostrils).

At the front of the room, former world champion Boris Spassky and international master Mershad Sharif are trying to read the minds of the two titans clashing in the auditorium.

"For us this is terra incognita, but for them, they must have 10 pages of analysis on this move," Sharif says into a microphone. Karpov has just made a move that (a computer check confirms) has not been played since 1966. "Kasparov was sleeping; this will wake him up."

Spassky takes this remark as sacrilege. "No, no," he insists. "There is hidden information here that we don't know about."

The audience is by turns philosophical and bewildered. "This is a real game of life," says Gilles Gaudu, a furniture company manager who came from Paris to watch. "You find the same sorts of problems in life, and chess forces you to concentrate, to study a situation and its different variants."

"The bishop, can't he go on the diagonal there?" asks Michael McDermott, an Irish genetics researcher who lives in Toulouse. He has come with a friend to learn the game. "If you don't want to be bored you have to think; that's kind of nice," he says.

But the Serious Chess Players of every nationality are in the press room, frantically trying to figure the next, best move, before one of the world's two best players proves them wrong.

"This is probably the best chess match that we will ever see," says Mark Huba, a freelance photographer from London who still does not forgive himself for not going to the first round of the championship in New York. "In a few years Karpov will not be as strong, and Kasparov may have improved. Now it is really at the knife's edge."

Apparently not everybody agrees. Jean Paul Touze, a large man with greasy blond hair and Karpov's agent in France, walks up to a hairstylist from the Alain Yvette salon in the back of the room. She is blow-drying the hair of a woman from the Soviet delegation. "Can I be next?" he asks. She replies, "Sure thing."