Gary Kasparov played a draw that might have become a victory if he had been more ambitious in the 24th and final game of the world chess championship yesterday in Lyon, France. The draw, making the final match score 12 1/2-11 1/2, gave Kasparov a clear title to the championship, a cash prize of $1.7 million and the Korloff trophy, a gold-and-bronze sculpture studded with diamonds and valued at $1 million.

For the end of the match, Kasparov abandoned the king's pawn opening he had previously favored and, as in the last game of the 1987 Seville match, came to the game with a long-range strategy. This time it was the English opening, to which Karpov reacted in a Nimzo-Indian style, exchanging his king's bishop for the knight on c3.

Kasparov adopted a wait-and-see strategy by placing his bishops on long diagonals; Karpov, with his 11th and 12th moves, marked time until Kasparov would commit himself to a clear strategy. Kasparov (very conscious of his position as the 13th world champion) made his choice with his 13th move, e4. His control of the center was good enough to make Karpov look for play elsewhere. The challenger chose to counter with his pawns on the queenside, and that became the combat zone for the rest of the game.

After 14. ... b5, there was great tension on the queenside. In such a situation, the one who breaks the tension usually comes out of it worse. Kasparov did it in this game with his 18th move, aimed at isolating Karpov's c-pawn. For that purpose, he even made a seemingly ugly move, 20. f3, as if to tell the black bishop that it must "bite on granite."

With 20. ... h5, Karpov tried to get into action against Kasparov's king, and the people in the press center began to get very excited. Previously, in a festive mood for New Year's Eve, most of them had been watching a bridge game on the premises, which pitted Michel Noir, mayor of Lyon, against a Mr. Moet-Chandon, reputedly the maker of the champagne of that name. But this move snapped the observers to attention.

Kasaparov then livened the game with the two-move sequence starting with 21. bxc5. After 23. g4, he relaxed in his private dressing room, but when Karpov played 23. ... c4, the champion hastened back to the stage. It was time for Karpov to sharpen the game, anyway; only a win would do him any good, and too much was at stake. With 25. Ba3, Kasparov showed disinterest in calculating the complications that would have arisen after 25. Rxa4, Nc5. Soon after, his pieces came forward, and Karpov might have realized too late that he could not pin white's knight with 26. Qb6 because of 27. Rab1, Qa7; 28. Qxa4. So his 26. ... Bc6 was a concession; he had to continue being a pawn down.

Kasparov made a good practical choice by starting to exchange a few pieces, and with 30. Rc3, suddenly black's position started to be dangerous. The threat was 31. Rd3. At that point, not having much time left, Karpov decided to walk a tightrope with 30. ... Qa5 and 31. ... Ba4. That put him in an even worse position, and after 33. Bc1, it was clear that he had to lose material.

Kasparov, needing only a draw, offered it after 36 moves in a position where he had winning chances. Karpov accepted immediately and both players stayed on the stage for a long time analyzing the game. Their analysis was shown on video monitors all over the Palais des Congres, where a few bottles of champagne had begun to pop up with toasts to Kasparov's victory and to the New Year.

In this match, Kasparov was able to keep his title but not to crush Karpov as he had predicted before it began. Karpov had quite good results but missed some winning chances in the New York phase of the match. The peak of a player's career used to be around age 35, but today it comes around age 29. Karpov, now 39, will be 42 when the next championship match begins, so we may have seen the last of these two in a world championship competition.

It may also be the last championship match played under these conditions. In the next one a faster time control is likely, probably 40 moves in two hours with six-hour games. This would eliminate most adjournments. We may also see the end of the three timeouts allowed to each player. In this match, too many of them were called on Fridays, possibly for the sake of long weekends, disappointing some prominent lovers of the game who had flown long distances.

For the next three years, Kasparov will be busy playing in World Cup tournaments while other top players vie for the right to challenge him in 1993.

Closing ceremonies for the match, which began in New York Oct. 8, are scheduled for Wednesday. Kavalek is an international grandmaster; McLellan is a Washington Post staff writer.