NEW YORK -- Welcome to Moscow on the Hudson, here on West 44th Street, in the lobby theater of the Hotel Macklowe where two Soviets, champion Gary Kasparov and Anatoly Karpov, sit on a raised platform, playing for the world chess title.

By American sporting convention it is an oddly contested championship -- as many as 24 games over 2 1/2 months; after Wednesday night's 12th game they move to Lyon, France -- each game played in breathless, intimidating silence, no replays, no postmatch interviews, no up-close and personals. Routinely, the contestants aren't even on the stage together; after a move one might retreat to a private room. (Personally, I'd scoot to the Carnegie Deli, 12 blocks away, for some corned beef, and be back in time for Rxb5.)

Kasparov, a slasher, a paratrooper, tends to play faster and riskier than the delicate Karpov. On Monday evening, playing the normally defensive black position, Kasparov made a particularly disruptive and aggressive move: an early exchange of a rook for a bishop. There was such tumult afterward -- and in so many different languages because the chess crowd is international -- that a journalist observing the astonishment on the part of the bedazzled grandmasters assembled in the analysis rooms suggested that "Kasparov and Karpov are so far ahead of everyone else, it's almost like no one is qualified to speak to their thinking."

Kasparov-Karpov is the Ali-Frazier of chess -- without the rhymes or The Howard. They have been sitting across a table, close enough that their heads almost touch and they can hear each other's breathing, since 1984. Through the years their rivalry has been remarkably balanced: To date they have played 131 games. Kasparov has won 18, Karpov 17, and there have been 93 draws. They are dead even at this championship with a victory apiece and nine draws.

Unlike most rivals who grow ever more respectful, even friendly, Karpov and Kasparov, as Keith Jackson would croon, plaaaaaain don't like each other. The bushy Kasparov has called the elfin Karpov "a creature of darkness. He is not like a human being. He is angry and evil." Whew! At least Dexter would smile when he launched into one of his metaphorically mixed tirades about ringing Danny White's clock. Kasparov's distrust of Karpov has fueled loopy rumors, one of which claimed Karpov was secretly being passed strategic information through color-coded snacks and drinks. (This came to be known as the Twinkie variation.)

I grant you I don't have the world's keenest chess mind; I am still embarrassed over a move I made in the 1974 Vermont state championship, when I slid that horsehead piece the length of the board and announced, "King me!" But I love the nuances of the game, and the way it lends itself to rolling prose. This excerpt, from the coverage of the 1986 championships, is etched into my mind: "Qxa3, white gets a very strong attack: 30, Nf6ch, Kh8; 31. Qh5, and black obviously cannot take the queen {obviously}; 31 . . . gxh5 allows 32. Rg8, mate."

Pop Quiz.

That passage refers to:

a) the formula for the H-bomb.

b) Joe Walton's new, simplified, even-Bubby-can-understand-it offense.

c) lyrics from 2 Live Crew's new single, "Me So Pawn-y."

Worldwide, chess is huge. In America, though, it remains more of a game than a sport, a sort of Mensa "Monopoly." It's in the Style section because it doesn't fit our preconceptions of what sport is about. How fast is Kasparov in the 40? What's Karpov's vertical leap? That's how we measure athletes.

And how do you train anyway, by sitting in a chair eight hours a day? Does that mean Art Linkletter is a grandmaster? Chess isn't like the other sports we glorify. It takes -- dare I say it? -- thinking! We've been numbed by too many bozos in the booth to appreciate what true thinking entails. I hate to break this to Tim Brant, but the MacArthur Foundation doesn't award genius grants to quarterbacks who can look off two receivers and find a tight end over the middle.

Chess actually has terrific TV potential: It's perfect for the telestrater, and there are enough natural breaks in the action -- like when they take two months off for lunch -- to handle a heavy commercial load. I can imagine an all-Madden chess team: big, fat guys in rumpled suits and perspiration stains, tearing off hunks of salami and sneering at their opponents as they chewed. Madden would've loved crazy Bobby "Calling Planet Earth" Fischer. On the chalkboard he could've pointed out through which fillings in Fischer's teeth the CIA was sending him the coded messages.

Tapping into the American sports market doesn't require changing the rules, just adding theatricality. For example, when you capture a rook, you could grab it, spike it on the carpet and do a sack dance. Sportswriters would be thrilled to cover chess if there was more action. Regrettably, the championships take so long, the goal isn't to outthink your opponent as much as to outlive him.

If only we could relate to chess players better -- if we knew which ones threw the hard cheese. If only chess players gave more interviews and said things like, "I'll hit you so hard, I'll kill your whole family." If only they used the key words: "momentum" and "focused," as in, "You know, I just tried to be focused, so I could concentrate on the momentum." Chess actually has a wealth of argot. Unfortunately, it's not accessible. Few people other than Tito Puente understand the Zaitsev variation of the Ruy Lopez opening. Silly me, for years I assumed the Sicilian defense was a full kiss on the lips and a pair of cement shoes.