There is no joy today in the galleries and studios of this croquet-crazy town.

Yesterday at 1 p.m. whimsy fell to wisdom and contemplative intellect whipped mere intuition. Washington's art critics -- that much maligned minority -- beat the artists of this city, and beat them really bad.

It was a victory for modesty. When sometime-critic Stan McKenzie of the Washington Afro-American stroked the slow low roller that would win it all, he leaped an inch into the air above the lawn of the Ellipse. Later, down to earth again, he told the TV post-game interviewer that he was "just lucky." Artists may be showoffs but critics do not brag.

McKenzie's name will be engraved -- and not for the first time (in fact, for the fourth) -- on that most coveted of Washington croquet trophies, the English Speaking Union Cup.

Because losing is like death, McKenzie took, no chances. Tennis players tell you if you don't have a power serve, wear one purple sock. Though most of the participants in the ninth annual battle for the cup wore what was expected (yours truly, for example, was nattily attired in a smart blue blazer, regimental tie and snowy whites), McKenzie's shirt was red.

Even so, he barely defeated Jo Ann Lewis of The Washington Post who, clad in demure beige, came from far behind to take second place.

The artists in the championship -- painter Bill Newman, sculptor Bill Lombardo, and photographer Frank DiPerna -- finished next-to-next-to-last, next-to-last and last.

Bill ("I'm out for blood!") Lombardo grumbled to his colleagues that McKenzie was "a ringer."

McKenzie, it is true, played for seven years in the National Basketball Association, and once scored 19 free throws (a record that still stands) in a single quarter. But all ballgames aren't the same. The ballgame played by kings and queens is, of course, croquet.

In an attempt to bend the odds -- the only trouble with the ploy was that it didn't work -- the artists insisted that the championship be played with balls and mallets of astonishing design. The winners' mallet had mauve wings. DiPerna's (by Joe Cameron) was sheathed and fringed in leather. Lewis used a "stocking snagger" model that bristled with wood spines.

The tourney opened with a set of preliminary foursomes. Davey Marlin-Jones finished fourth of four; so did Peter Marzio, the director of the Corcoran, who took his defeat gamely. Marzio said, "Oh, well . . ."

Though the championship began with much ill-natured ribaldy ("Hit him over the head with your mallet, Lewis"; "Kill him, Lombardo, Kill him!"), it ended in deep silence. McKenzie, whose ball more than once had been hit far off the field by his ruthless adversaries, fought back every time. When, at last, he rolled it toward the final stake, there was no noise at all.

Silence. Then a click! Then the applause began.

The stricken artists grumbled. "Oh, drat," Lombardo said.