Once again, Joe L. Allbritton -- the small-town boy from Mississippi who built a fortune in Texas banking and real estate before moving to Washington in the mid-1970s -- has taught the big-city guys a thing or two about the art of dealmaking. Or has he?

By snapping up what's left of National Bank of Washington -- essentially deposits -- for only $33 million, Allbritton has demonstrated his heralded sense of timing and ability to structure what often appear to be improbable deals.

In acquiring $1 billion in NBW deposits when federal regulators sold the bank, Allbritton, who is chairman of Riggs National Corp. and owner of 35 percent of the company's stock, outbid at least two major competitors to gain control of what even those who didn't bid for NBW coveted most: deposits and a greater share of the District's consumer banking market.

The deal comes at a time when banks' commercial loan portfolios are taking a beating as a result of the deep slump in the real estate sector. Of all the major banks in the region that might have gained market share by buying NBW, only Riggs appeared to want it badly enough to meet the federal regulators' deadline and conditions for resolving longstanding problems at NBW.

To complete the transaction, Riggs agreed to take on about $1 billion in NBW loans and other assets. Riggs reserved the right, however, to return potentially troublesome loans to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.

Some banking industry executives believe Allbritton might have been able to buy the deposits for less, but that's a matter of conjecture. Still, there is a question about what Allbritton is really buying in addition to the deposits. The intangibles that come with the transaction make that a difficult question to answer right now.

Allbritton certainly will be open to criticism if he closes some former NBW branches, as he surely must to hold down costs. In a city already saturated with bank branches, there obviously is some overlap of Riggs's 30 branches and the 18 NBW offices.

Riggs already is paying an added price of sorts, judging by the reaction of former NBW employees to the transaction. With organized labor firmly entrenched at NBW since the days when the United Mineworkers of America owned the bank, it was inevitable that the union would resist employee layoffs.

"It's going to be perceived by employees and some members of the public that the acquiring bank is getting rid of the union," observed an executive at a District bank.

Already union officials representing former NBW employees are mounting a challenge of federal regulators' termination of their contract with NBW before selling the bank to Riggs. Riggs has offered temporary employment to some of the 900 former NBW employees, but even that could pose a problem for Riggs officials. "Even though the union contract {with NBW} is going away, those employees are in your bank and they're still members of the union," remarked a local bank executive.

In the meantime, it's possible that some commercial deposits in the batch that Riggs bought are tied to bad loans that it may decide not to keep.

Time will tell just how good a deal Allbritton made. Still, this was vintage Allbritton: the dealmaker, the savvy investor, an engaging but tough businessman -- some describe him as ruthless -- who drives a hard bargain.

Whatever else is said about the NBW deal, it gives Riggs added core deposits at a reasonable cost and permits it to give back any bad assets it might have taken in the package, thus preserving its basic asset quality. Certainly the purchase of NBW solidifies Riggs's position as the District's largest bank.

Since 1975, Allbritton has carefully put together a series of deals, gaining control of three important companies which, over the years, had become local institutions. He first cut a deal that gave him control of the Evening Star Co. and its newspaper, the Washington Star, the District's oldest and second-largest at the time. He then launched a surprising and bitter takeover of Riggs from within, after becoming a major stockholder. With the purchase of NBW's deposits, Riggs now has taken control of what remained of the District's oldest bank.

In each instance, Allbritton's timing and execution were geared to take advantage of weak management or a company in trouble. An astute investor, the diminutive Allbritton has amassed considerable wealth through his ownership of banks and real estate in Texas, Washington and London, and of funeral homes, newspapers and broadcast properties, including WJLA-TV (Channel 7) in Washington.

One of the more colorful accounts of Allbritton's dealmaking prowess had him once consummating a deal over lunch after quickly working out the details on a napkin.

In the mid-1970s, when the Washington Star was sinking deeper into a pool of red ink, Allbritton on more than one occasion stood on a desk in the newsroom to assure staffers, "We're all in this together." Employees -- even union hardliners -- subsequently agreed to work five days for four days' pay, temporarily saving jobs that Allbritton was prepared to eliminate.

The Star eventually ceased publishing in 1981, but by that time Allbritton had sold the paper for a handsome profit to Time Inc., keeping the more lucrative broadcast properties that the Evening Star Co. owned in the District and elsewhere. In fairness, it should be noted that Allbritton made the choice after the Federal Communications Commission had refused to permit him to own a newspaper and radio and TV outlets in the same market.

Interestingly, it was a federal agency that facilitated Allbritton's purchase of the ailing NBW by putting it up for sale when NBW's parent, Washington Bancorp- oration, filed for protection from creditors under the federal bankruptcy code. The purchase of NBW is both a mark of Allbritton's perseverance and one of the bitter ironies in the unraveling of NBW.

Allbritton not only had expressed interest in buying NBW earlier this year but, indeed, had discussed the possibility of a merger with NBW officials in the early 1980s when the bank's franchise was far more valuable. A merger at that stage ostensibly would have averted a series of disasters that befell NBW these past two years. Certainly NBW would not have been wracked by the internal power struggle that undermined it at the most critical period in its 181-year history.