Timothy Hanke knows that the chess world gambled this summer by staging a championship tournament in this high-roller's mecca.

By most accounts, that bet crapped out big time. And chess, its adherents say, got rooked in the process.

This week, as the month-long World Chess Federation championship reaches a climax at Caesars Palace with two relative unknowns facing off for six grueling matches across an ivory-pieced chessboard, the event has brought all the hoopla of a hospital orderlies' convention.

The Vegas tournament was seen as a prime opportunity for chess to widen its audience, said Hanke, a federation spokesman. Instead the event has gotten lost in the neon glow of a city famous for its outlandish promotions.

In the chess face-off's decisive week, matches have been sparsely attended. On Tuesday, about a dozen people sat in the 200-seat auditorium. The crowd paled in comparison to the one just down the hall, where several hundred toilet-paper salesmen gathered for a meet-and-greet cocktail hour.

"Vegas is a gambling town," said a resigned Hanke. "Folks don't come here for intellectual endeavors. They come to play the slots."

Members of the foreign media here to cover the chess event were even more negative.

"This is pathetic," said Ronen Har-Zvi, reporting for a chess-oriented Web site that is popular in Russia and Israel. "In Europe they fill 2,000-seat arenas, not a seat empty! Here you cannot give tickets away for a world championship chess tournament. What is on America's mind?"

One explanation for poor turnout is that the game's three top players skipped the Las Vegas event. In a pursuit that has become splintered by competing sanctioning groups, the world's best player, Garry Kasparov, and his designated challenger, Viswanathan Anand of India, boycotted the match because they plan to stage a rival world championship later this year.

Even last year's winner of the World Chess Federation tournament, when asked to defend his crown, said "nyet." Anatoly Karpov of Russia refused to return unless he was seeded into the final round.

Hanke said promoters told Karpov to take a hike, hoping to change the atmosphere of modern chess championships, at which a cadre of often-belligerent top masters calls all the shots.

"This is the brave new world of chess, a democratic system where the top players no longer play the role of bullies who rule the sport," Hanke said.

Meanwhile, according to an Associated Press report, Karpov has filed a breach of contract suit against the federation, seeking more than $1 million in compensation.

Karpov filed his petition on Aug. 19 in the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Lausanne, Switzerland, his spokesman Shiloh Quinn said.

Quinn said Karpov was not given a fair opportunity to defend his championship and that officials from the International Chess Federation never consulted with him about the dates of the tournament and his role in the event. The suit asks that the court require the winner of the tournament to play Karpov in a championship match.

The biggest snafu came when one of the tournament's two finalists--Alexander Khalifman, 33, a Russian grandmaster who is tied 1 1/2 to 1 1/2 with his opponent, grandmaster Vladimir Akopian of Armenia--decided to move to a room at Caesars to be closer to the tournament. But when he called the hotel, he was told there were no rooms available.

Said one tournament insider: "To say he was insulted is an understatement."

But on Tuesday, Khalifman was all concentration as he faced his 27-year-old opponent. The men sat in two high-backed chairs--one black, one white--in an ornate ballroom so quiet that the players could hear the hum of the hotel air conditioning.

Behind the contestants were two huge screens, one displaying a close-up feed of the chessboard while the other showed a diagram of the ongoing moves.

Although this is Las Vegas, where you can get odds on virtually everything but how fast paint dries in July, there has been no betting line for this chess tournament. The reason, promoters say, is that Vegas oddsmakers don't know enough about the game to devise odds that ensure a profit.

But odds can be found on the Internet, where the two players are rated even.