NEW YORK -- On the 35th floor of a Manhattan skyscraper, inside a TV studio filled with the accouterments of a cozy study, the chess-playing machine sits to the camera's left and peers at the board, cooly preparing unrelenting defenses and ruthless attacks.
The machine is Garry Kasparov. His opponent -- a temperamental, unpredictable computer named Deep Blue -- isn't even in the same room. Deep Blue is phoning it in, transmitting by wire from twin, black 6-foot towers that rest in an adjoining room to a computer screen next to the chess board.
After the fourth game Wednesday in the six-game rematch, the contest is tied, with a victory for each side and two draws.
As the match between the Russian who is world chess champion and the American that is a 1.4-ton supercomputer heads to a conclusion Sunday, it has become harder to tell whether the calculating, suddenly cautious Kasparov or the tempestuous electronic box is the more human.
"Deep Blue has shown human tenacity," says Maurice Ashley, a chess commentator, "while Garry is almost playing computer chess."
Watch the match long enough, and the two players -- Kasparov and the computer that he calls "The Creature" -- begin to look the same: Both are inscrutable.
Both are backed by expert teams of human coaches and complex computer programs. Deep Blue practices against another IBM computer, just as Kasparov's chief sparring partner is a program named Fritz.
Both are corporate titans with money-making propositions lined up for after the match. Deep Blue will tour the country playing chess (in some cases on the Internet) before going into pharmaceutical design. Kasparov will tour the country playing chess (including a stop next weekend at the University of Maryland Baltimore County) before returning to Moscow to manage a financial empire that includes a charter jet company, a political consulting group and a Moscow investment house.
"It's not a game of computer vs. human," says Marty Newborn, author of a book about last year's match between Kasparov and Deep Blue, which was won by the human. "This is a match pitting a computer and its team of human assistants vs. a man and the army of computers he keeps in his hotel room. There isn't all that much of a difference between the two."
The worlds of computers and chess have merged to the point that it is sometimes hard to distinguish one from the other. And the blurring has been to the benefit of chess.
The proliferation of chess-playing computer programs has sparked new interest in the game among young people. The U.S. Chess Federation reports that the number of members age 18 or under has surged 700 percent in five years, to 40,000. That accounts for half the group's membership.
"Kids used to have to study chess books and wait to get a game with another kid," says Gary Prince, who runs a chess Web site and writes for "Atlantic Chess News." "But now they can always get an immediate game with a computer, and they set the computer at any difficulty they want."
Patrick Wolff, a grandmaster who is here watching the Kasparov-Deep Blue match, says: "I believe that because of computers, chess may finally attain the status of a popular sport, like tennis."
Wolff and Yasser Scirawan, a three-time U.S. champion, say that competing against computers has improved their games.
And computer scientists say they can use chess to test the capabilities of computers. IBM officials here say that their project to develop and improve Deep Blue has led to advances in processing and computation speed applicable to weather forecasting and economic modeling.
"Computers get along very well with the chess world, and vice versa," says Prince. "The relationship between the two worlds is actually quite close, almost synergistic."
Competitive computer chess dates to 1970, when the Association for Computing Machinery organized a tournament exclusively for computers. But interest in using machines to play chess and to advance technology is more than two centuries old.
Baron Wolfgang von Kempelen toured Europe in the 1760s with a machine named Turk that played chess by using a turbaned marionette attached to a cabinet. The cabinet was Turk's mysterious "brain." Inside the chest the baron kept a midget who happened to be an expert chess player.
Computers now play tournaments and achieve rankings just like their human counterparts. By building up points in international tournaments, chess players can reach three levels of mastery, the highest being grandmaster, of which there are about 400 in the world.
American tournaments work on a similar rating system, with players starting at 100 points and, in a few cases, reaching as many as 2,700. The average adult competitor has 1,500 points. It usually takes several years, and unusual talent, to reach 2,200 points and be recognized as a national master.