Larry Steele, a 28-year-old carpenter from Northeast Washington, walked into a classroom, unpacked his vinyl chess board and carefully placed on it 32 plastic chess pieces. His opponent in the D.C. Chess League's annual chess tournament, held during the weekend at the University of the District of Columbia, was late.

But Steele started the official clock on his game and made his first move. Karen Taylor, his opponent, had 100 minutes to make her first 40 moves, and she was losing time.

"Chess tournaments are competitions for blood. You don't win the game of chess on luck. You win by your opponent's mistakes. Her first mistake is that she's late," said Steele, grinning confidently. "I beat her before. She's good, but she could be much better. She needs to study the game."

When Taylor finally arrived, she was perspiring and looked as if she was a bit out of breath from walking very fast. Steele said to her: "Come my little child. I have you."

Concentration and silence prevailed throughout the match, except for the relentless ticking of the clock. The sound was echoed by other clocks at tables where several of the other 99 tournament contestants had squared off and were quietly, but intensely, battling for an advantage.

Then, suddenly Steele, who has played chess for 13 years, burst into the hallway pulling at his hair and screaming: "I lost to a woman! It can't be!"

Taylor, who has been playing for about a decade and who was the only woman in Saturday's tournament, said "I'm glad I roasted the turkey."

This scenario was played out again and again during the weekend, mostly with less conceit however, as the tournament competitors sought to outthink each other. The array of competitors--which one player described as "a typical weird bunch of chess players"--included construction workers, economists, stock brokers and disc jockeys. Some came dressed in dark suits and sky-blue socks while others wore shorts and musty T-shirts. Still, others appeared to be in a strange limbo, pursuing the challenge of becoming top-ranked chess players while living the life of vagabonds.

The tournament was divided into two classes--the D.C. Open, for the better chess players, and the amateur division, for lower-ranked players. The tournament culminated with winners taking prizes ranging from $35 to $300, according to tournament director Vincent Moore. The tournament champion was still unannounced late last night.

Chess is a very popular hobby in the District, said Moore, a 26-year-old property manager who has played the game since he was seven. People play all over the city, from private homes to public parks and bars. Perhaps the most celebrated gathering place for avid District of Columbia chess players is Dupont Circle, he said.

"Washington has a very strong chess population. There are about 1,100 ranked players in the D.C. area. Their average strength is higher than most areas in the country," said Moore, who has competed in national team competitions where District players mostly won or placed second. Tournaments have been held in the District for as long as 40 years, he estimated.

There seem to be as many reasons that chess lovers love the game as there are squares on a chess board. Most of the players interviewed at the three-day tournament said that they play for personal satisfaction. Some said it is an "escape" and an "addiction." Most readily acknowledged that winning at chess is a big ego trip.

Phillip Collier, a one-time chess master who never won much money competing and who now sells chess equipment, reminisced about the glory days when he could defeat most of his opponents. He said most chess players need to "get a feeling of power over other people" and that Saturday's contenders were some of the best players in the area. "The average person here could pick 20 people on the street at random and play all of them at the same time and beat them all," he said.

One-time D.C. champ James Ream, 52, a DS-5 clerk in the city government housing department, said that "playing chess keeps my mind active. It teaches your brain cells to turn over, which is very enjoyable, really."

Al Clifford, 25, a part-time disc jockey at a popular Maryland night spot, plays for the excitement. "You have to give those pieces life to make the game interesting. If you can't see them as soldiers, it's going to be boring." Clifford, who also writes tests for the Baltimore City Civil Service Commission, rebuffs the notion that chess is strictly for "brainiacs," computer wizards and elitists. "You have to have common sense. Any decent chess book can teach you to play. Then, you have to be more of a thinker than a brain."