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— The Chargers play horrible football, but their administrative brain trust plays a helluva game of chess. Of course, that brain trust is competing against a pitifully weak opponent: the San Diego city attorney's office.

Last week, the Chargers made another moxie Machiavellian move by filing suit against the City of San Diego in a Los Angeles court. It was one of a series of moves foxily designed to alienate San Diego, thus making it easier for the team to blow town without creating a public-relations problem for the National Football League, such as the Browns' sudden departure from Cleveland a few years ago.

The Chargers first flipped San Diego the bird in the mid-1990s by wangling a bilious one-way contract that permitted the team to shop itself to other cities five times in 23 years, all the while enjoying a 60,000-seat guarantee, so that it could announce it was leaving town, and then play profitably in an empty San Diego stadium while it was awaiting completion of a new venue elsewhere.

After it got a remake of the stadium now named Qualcomm, the Chargers said they were happy and would stay until 2020. Quickly, the 60,000-seat guarantee bled the city and enraged the citizenry. The Chargers sniffed that a deal was a deal. The city renegotiated the contract in 1997, but city attorney Casey Gwinn totally blew the opportunity to remove the particularly odious parts. Shortly, for the Chargers, a deal was no longer a deal: the team wanted a new taxpayer-financed stadium.

Obviously, there was civic resentment. The Chargers craftily fanned it by relocating its training camp to a pollution-choked Los Angeles location owned by a billionaire who was trying to develop a downtown L.A. football stadium. This move also gave the team a business presence in the L.A. area, which might strengthen its argument that a lawsuit should be heard outside San Diego County. The 1995 contract specified that parties to a suit could file anywhere in the state. Good chess players plot moves well in advance: the Chargers' brain trust was doing just that. There is no evidence that city officials recognized that.

The Chargers then made further steps to antagonize San Diegans. They got rid of icons such as Junior Seau. They presented an insulting proposal to build a stadium in Mission Valley. Then they negotiated matters with city council. When the council wouldn't cave in to the team's outrageous demands, the team filed suit in L.A., to which it wants to relocate. Do you see the brilliant chess here? The team creates the political hostility that prevents city councilmembers from rolling over. Then the team moans about a city council that won't play ball.

"The Chargers have poisoned the well because it is part of their exit strategy," says former councilmember Bruce Henderson, who years ago predicted this scenario in the Reader. "The Chargers need to send a clear signal to Los Angeles and NFL owners that L.A. is their territory." Also, the league wants to send a clear signal to cities like Minneapolis, Indianapolis, and New Orleans that they must build a new stadium, or like San Diego, they will lose their team, points out Henderson.

At one time, the Chargers seemed to be going down a double track. The team preferred to move to L.A. but wanted San Diego as a backup in case L.A. never built or refurbished a stadium (particularly the Rose Bowl) or simply didn't want the hapless Chargers. Now, it appears that San Diego is no longer the backup. Some other city must be in second place while the Chargers woo Los Angeles and Pasadena and also try to get National Football League brass to approve the move to the L.A. area.

I do not believe these chess wizards are actually located at Chargers headquarters. Anybody hearing Dean Spanos utter five words would hardly mistake him for Gary Kasparov. The grand master is the law firm of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom. This was the hostile takeover law firm of the 1980s, representing such characters as Mike Milken, who later went to prison, and his Wall Street firm, Drexel Burnham Lambert, which went down in flames after trying to destroy America's industrial base by selling it to Las Vegas-connected snabobs.

Skadden, Arps knows that San Diego is a patsy. More than a dozen years ago, it told San Diego Gas & Electric that it had to accept the takeover proposal of Southern California Edison. Mercifully, that deal didn't go through. The law firm negotiated the anti-San Diego 1995 Chargers contract with the city. Now it is representing the Chargers in the suit against the city.

The Chargers want to exercise a complex "trigger" that would permit them to move out of town. However, the National Football League would have to present data to justify the trigger, and it refused to give such information to the Chargers task force. Since the city and team have been negotiating secretly, it's not known if the league would cough up financial information in court. Personally, I doubt it.

That's just one reason the Chargers want a friendly judge. San Diego wants one, too, and should try harder to get this suit moved, says Michael Aguirre, a candidate for city attorney who warned the city last year that the Chargers would file a suit in L.A. Aguirre filed a suit against the Chargers that year, trying to block any possible team suit filed in L.A. However, San Diego wouldn't join the suit, and Aguirre didn't have the funds to pursue it on his own. So he dropped it.

Now look at the chessboard. The city is completely on the defensive. Perhaps the city attorney's office (which refuses to answer any questions) thought the game was checkers, not chess.

In a larger sense, the game is Monopoly. The National Football League, which orchestrates the build-me-a-stadium-or-I-leave-town scam by billionaire team owners, enjoys monopoly powers. Although San Diego is short of funds, it may be time to recruit other victims of the league -- Oakland, Seattle, Cincinnati, almost every city that has capitulated to the extortion racket -- "and prepare the best antitrust suit we can against the NFL," says Aguirre. Also, "Our representatives in Congress should introduce legislation to strip the NFL of its antitrust exemptions."

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