This is my annual column on political scandals in the world of chess. It is, admittedly, a small corner of the universe, but, like most such corners, a microcosm. Last year I brought you the attempt to rob Gary Kasparov of the world championship. (Epilogue: it failed; he won.) This year a bigger story -- an attempt to rob Americans of their self-respect.

In the Soviet Union, chess players are organized, subsidized and lionized. The system produces by far the best players in the world. In the United States, chess players enjoy a status similar to that of 19th century actors: theirs is an odd, slightly disreputable occupation.

So, for American chess to get attention, and put on a show that will generate interest and money, it needs Russians. Soviet authorities know this. And that puts them in what capitalists call a monopolistic position. Monopolists can dictate price.

The Soviets offered the U.S. Chess Federation (USCF) a spectacular tournament in Atlantic City: the best of the United States vs. the best of the U.S.S.R. Rocky IV, minus the pectorals. The Soviets would send a six-man team, including Kasparov and former champion Anatoly Karpov, the Ali and Frazier of world chess. Only one small price: the U.S. team must not include any Soviet emigres.

Now, an American chess team from which emigres are banned is like an American basketball team from which blacks are banned. But the Soviet motive was not to make it easier to win the match. They'll win in a walk anyway. The point was to demonstrate to current and future Soviet emigres how long is the reach of the system they seek to flee.

Lev Alburt already knows. He was a top Soviet grandmaster when he defected to the United States in 1979. He is now the U.S. champion, but is invited to few top foreign tournaments because organizers know that if Alburt comes, no Soviet will. (Boycotts are illegal under international chess rules, which thus enjoy all the power and respect accorded other norms of international conduct, such as international law.)

The scandal here is not the Soviets' demand. After all, they were just being good Leninists, making sure that no corner of life goes unpoliticized. The scandal was the American response. Rather than refuse to discuss the blackmail, American chess officials entered into negotiations. (The American disease: the irresistible urge to negotiate anything.)

The real Soviet target was Alburt, who is not just an emigre but a defector, that is, he left without benefit of an exit visa. If Alburt plays, said the Soviet side, no match.

American chess officials preferred, of course, to include Alburt. But, "if necessary," they were prepared to sacrifice him and then "try to reach an accommodation" with him, as one USCF memo put it.

The deal needed to be arranged quietly and with Alburt's acquiescence. But Alburt refused to acquiesce in his own blackballing. And he did not go quietly. The story got out. Other people in the chess world expressed outrage. The deal and the tournament collapsed. (Epilogue: negotiations recently resumed, with the United States now firmly rejecting the Soviet demands. The Soviets then dropped their demands -- there is a moral here -- and the match, Alburt included, appears to be on again.)

The scandal, here as elsewhere, is not the power of Soviet censorship. It is the phenomenon of Western self-censorship, of which the Alburt affair is a particularly clumsy example: heavy-handed Russians compromising light-minded Americans.

You don't have to play chess to encounter the problem. For Western scholars and journalists working in totalitarian countries, self- censorship is an occupational hazard. If you say anything too displeasing to the authorities, you can be expelled. And a Russian expert denied access to Soviet society and Soviet archives is gravely wounded professionally. What to do?

Andrew Nagorski, a Newsweek correspondent expelled from the U.S.S.R. in 1982, makes clear in his memoir, "Reluctant Farewell," that, for some, the solution is self-censorship, often unconscious. You know what limits the regime will tolerate. You tailor your contacts, your speech, even your questions to fit.

A few years ago, a Stanford anthropology student who reported (undiplomatically, in a Taiwanese journal) on forced abortion and infanticide in China was thrown out of China. Then out of Stanford. The university says it did so because of other offenses and denies that the prospect of losing scholarly access to China colored its thinking.

Perhaps. But it did color the thinking of others. At the time, the president of the Social Sciences Research Council in New York wrote Stanford warning that the U.S.-Chinese exchange program "could be harmed if the American scholarly community took no action on what the Chinese regarded as improper behavior by (the researcher)." Thinking ahead is prudent. But in such a context, thinking ahead means thinking Chinese.

The hapless chess negotiators were certainly thinking Russian. Another USCF memo explains why the Soviets demanded that the United States ban emigres: "The U.S.S.R. wants this match to be a friendly contest. . . . Their rationale is one not of boycott but of spirit." Of spirit, mind you. Not even a Russian could think that Russian.