GAMBLING JUNKET" - It sounds like something shady. Actually, there is nothing illegal about it. A junket is a group of gamblers solicited to travel to a casino for the sole purpose of gambling. In common language, that means certain people are invited to gambling locales, free of all expenses, to gamble their hearts away, if they so desire.

There IS one catch - you must be a real gambler before any junketeer (a person who organizes a junket) will sponsor you for such a trip. Obviously, someone has to make some money somewhere on this deal, and over the long haul people who go on junkets put enough of their hard-earned chips back into the casino to more than make up for their free airfare, meals, drinks, and whatever. And if they go home a winner? So much the better. That only means they will return more often to gamble more frequently, and will probably bring other high-rollers along as well.

So the gambler gets his free trip, the casino gets a fair chance at the gambler's money, the junketeer gets a kickback from the casino, and everyone is happy.

Can anyone hitch up to this nifty-sounding bonanza? Not exactly. Junketeers are not listed in the Yellow Pages, and you probably won't hear about them at your local travel agency either. You must first KNOW someone who has gone on a junket and will recommend you, or find a junketeer or a hotel/casino that will sponsor you. Either way, the first few times you go, you must fork over some "up front" money, which you guarantee to gamble. The "up front" figure, which a few years ago was around $2,000-$2,500, is now $5,000-$6,000.

This should give you a clue as to what is meant by the term "real gambler." If you mean business at the tables (and that generally means $25 tables, and cashing in $500 worth of chips at a time), you will eventually be asked to join a junket. And if you prove yourself a consistent high-roller, the "up front" money will be waived and you can be taken almost anywhere you want to gamble. In many cases, your spouse can go along - and perhaps even another couple, depending on your gambling reputation and your junketeer.

If you are interested in merely freeloading on one of these trips, beware. Plenty of eyes are watching you, and if you DON'T honor your gambling commitment, not only will you be excluded from future junkets, you may be billed for this one after all.