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SEATTLE (AP) _ Except for the 1,500-year-old gentlemen's game at its core, the U.S. Chess Championship will be barely recognizable when it kicks off here this weekend.

Women will square off against men for the first time in the history of the cerebral competition, which begins Saturday at the Seattle Center. The field has been expanded to 56 players _ instead of the usual 10 or 12 in the men's championship and six or eight in the women's _ and the prize money has been doubled to $200,000.

``Before, I'd show up and there would be 10 other players and I would know them all by their first names. This is going to be a much more compelling event,'' says Yasser Seirawan, who wound up in a three-way tie for the championship last year.

There won't be ambiguity about who's champion this year: A playoff system has been implemented, with the top finisher collecting $15,000.

``It's going to be more fun and more interesting,'' said Jennifer Shahade, 21, ranked third among the 12 females in the tournament.

The changes are part of a grand scheme to generate excitement and bring chess to the masses. Some other countries, including Great Britain, have instituted similar changes, and Seirawan believes American competitors are up to the challenge.

``The women have been sheltered from the men,'' says Seirawan. ``That's understandable if you have to power-lift 300 pounds, but why can't they play chess together?''

This year's competition is also open to younger stars, including Hana Itkis, 13, of Fair Lawn, N.J. _ younger even than the brilliant Bobby Fischer, who won the competition in 1957 at age 14.

Elena Donaldson, the top-rated woman in the tournament, hopes staring down some of the world's best male players won't scare women away from competition.

Women, while not mere pawns in the game, have played historically less competitive chess. But then, IBM's Deep Blue supercomputer lost its first match to chess grand master Garry Kasparov in 1996 _ and as the chess world knows, the computer came back a year later, dethroning the chess king in their 1997 rematch.

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On the Net:

Seattle Chess Foundation: www.seattlechessfoundation.org