Capitalism's vice is that it turns everything -- even, say, a woman's first historic run for the White House -- into cash. Communism's vice is that it turns everything -- even, say, chess -- into politics.

Chess? You may have trouble seeing chess as politics. Americans think chess is a game. The "Great Soviet Encyclopedia," in one of its few correct entries, defines chess as "an art appearing in the form of a game." And like all art under socialism, it is to be turned into an instrument of the state.

You think I exaggerate. If I quoted you Nikolai Krylenko, commissar of justice, in 1932 -- "We must finish once and for all with the neutrality of chess. . . . We must organize shock-brigades of chess players, and begin the immediate realization of a Five Year Plan for chess" -- you'd say I was dredging the history books for Stalinist lunacies. So I bring you fresh evidence of communism's penchant for politicizing everything, for controlling everything it politicizes, and for letting nothing -- shame least of all -- jeopardize that control. I bring you L'affaire Karpov, a tempest for a teapot.

The story is this. On Sept. 10, 1984, the world chess championship begins in Moscow. Both players are Soviet citizens: champion Anatoly Karpov and challenger Gary Kasparov. To win, one must win six games. Draws don't count. After nine games Karpov is ahead 4-0. An astonishing lead.

Kasparov then launches the most relentless war of attrition in the history of championship chess. He deliberately forces draw after draw, at one point 17 in a row, to one purpose: to exhaust the older and frailer champion.

On Nov. 24, Karpov does win a fifth game, but he will not win again. On Dec. 12, Kasparov wins his first. The score is 5-1. Then 14 more draws.

Then something extraordinary happens. Karpov, known for his metronomic logic and unshakable composure, loses game 47, playing "as though in a daze," writes chess master Robert Byrne. Game 48: Karpov loses again. The score is 5-3.

By now, says another expert, Karpov "looks like Chernenko." Chernenko looks bad, but Karpov is 33. He has lost 22 pounds and did not have very many to start with. He is close to collapse. He is about to fall -- as Nabokov's fictional champion, Luzhin, fell -- into what Nabokov called "the abysmal depths of chess." Kasparov is on the brink of the greatest chess comeback ever.

And on the brink both will stay. Six days later, on Feb. 15, the president of the International Chess Federation, under enormous pressure from Soviet authorities, shows up in Moscow and declares the match a draw -- and over. Karpov is saved by the bell, except that here the referee rang it in the middle of a round and at an eight count.

Why? One can understand the Party wanting Karpov to win in 1978 and 1981, when the challenger was Victor Korchnoi -- defector, Jew, all around troublemaker, Trotsky at the chessboard. But Kasparov is not Korchnoi. He is a good Soviet citizen, a party member, and not known for any politics. He is, however, half Armenian, half Jewish. Until age 12, his name was Gary Weinstein. He is no dissident, but he is young (21) and independent. Above all, he is not reliable.

Karpov, a man who needed to be named only once, is. Conqueror of Korchnoi (twice), receiver of the Order of Lenin, ethnically pure (Russian) and politically pliant (a leader of the Soviet Peace Committee), he is the new Soviet man. And he receives the attention fitting so rare a political commodity: he says he was told of the match's cancellation over the phone in his car. Cellular service is not widely available in the Soviet Union.

Now, this is the third time that Soviet authorities have tried to undermine Kasparov's shot at the championsh. In 1983 they stopped him from traveling to his quarterfinal match in Pasadena, Calif. The official reason (later pressed into service for the Olympics) was "lack of security." Only a sportsmanlike opponent and accommodating chess officials (they rescheduled the match without penalty) saved Kasparov from defaulting in the candidates' round and losing his chance to challenge Karpov.

But challenge he did. The finals were held in the prestigious Hall of Columns in the House of Unions. That is, until Kasparov's rally in the 47th game. Soviet authorities then suddenly moved the match to the Hotel Sport outside the city center. "Like moving from Carnegie Hall to a gin mill in Poughkeepsie," says Larry Parr, editor of Chess Life magazine.

I interpreted the move to mean that Chernenko was about to die, since the Hall of Columns is where Soviet leaders (like Dmitri Ustinov) lie in state. Silly me. I was insufficiently cynical about Soviet behavior. The reason for the move was not to bury Chernenko (he continues to be propped up like a Potemkin villain), but to save Karpov. The move took eight days -- eight otherwise illegal days of rest for Karpov.

It didn't help. Karpov was too far gone. Kasparov destroyed him the very next day in the 48th game. Soviet officials then made sure it was the last.

Now do you believe me?

A month ago I would not have believed it myself. (Kasparov still does not believe it.) Fix the biggest chess match in the world? Steal the championship from one Soviet citizen for a marginal propaganda gain? In broad daylight?

Still, we must be careful. Unfortunate episodes like these tend to fuel native American paranoia about how far the Soviets will go in relentless pursuit of even the most speculative political advantage. We must resist such facile reactions. Next thing you know someone will claim that the KGB got the Bulgarians to hire a Turk to shoot the pope to pacify Poland.