The game is on: a whole roomful of players throwing ego blitzes and full-psyche presses at each other.

The arena is a hotel reception for somebody or other -- the author of yet another Watergate or CIA book? An economist with a new zero-sum curve that's going to save the dollar?

It doesn't matter, it's where the action is, which is where the players want to be.

A player/lawyer, outfitted with a Baccarat Trump cigar and his tie pulled down just like a real tough guy, a workin' stiff, goes one-on-one with a player/journalist:

"Where ya been?" he says, which is the ultimate player slam-dunk, hinting as it does that the journalist has dropped out of The Game, has quit to, say, write a book on some no-win topic like the Law of the Sea treaty.

The player/journalist, his $25 haircut in a Dylan Thomas tousle, doesn't even flinch.

"Catching the red-eye back from Lalaland," he says.

This means he took a late flight from Los Angeles.

Los Angeles, of course, is the player city, being the nest of the movies and the life-as-sport ethos -- players being every bit as much players-as-in-movies as players-as-in-football.

"Life in the lane," says the lawyer, fanning clinches from the hip. Players don't say "fast lane" anymore. Just "land."

"I feel like my life is a movie," says the journalist. All players feel like their lives are movies.

These two just now are the latest fashion in people, just like narrow is the new fashion in neckties. Peoplechic: in the '50s it was company-men. In the '60s it was Aquarians. In the '70s it was the airheads of the Me Generation. Now, at the dawn of the '80s, welding the pleasure principle to the Protestant work ethic, Bohemia and the Establishment in one Type-A-personality package, it's players.

"Met this truly primo lady, I mean world class . . ." says the lawyer.

"Is that my beeper going off or is it yours? says the journalist.

Not that the lawyer is listening.

Players never listen. They're too busy going for position, thinking what they're going to say next, which in the lawyer's case drifts into "the 10K I had to slice off the asking price on that three-bedroom in Cleveland Park when the prime jumped two goddam points in four days."

Players swear a lot and like to talk about the money they lose much more than the money they win. They think it makes them sound authentic, like some kind of latter-day Damon Runyon characters.

Of course, the game/movie is raging all over the room -- isn't that Michael Halberstam, the player/cardiologist, talking about his novel? And former Sen. James Aboureszk hustling backgammon partners? And that looks like Lesley Stahl, from CBS; and Richard Helms, martyr to old-boy loyalty at the CIA; and Esther Newberg, the literary agent, down from New York, and Ira Lowe, the lawyer, gliding around like a combination of Commander Whitehead and Russian nobility before Peter the Great.

"They held out for a buy-back on the lease option and ended up with their dresses over their heads . . . ."

"She's so brave. He left her Tuesday night and Wednesday morning she was prowling around the beach like a panther in heat, celluite and all."

". . . the lane . . ."

". . . fell back 10 and punted . . ."

How to explain players? There are no fixed criteria. Marion Barry, for instance, is a player, while Walter Washington is not. Robert Strauss is Hall of Fame, while Father Hartke over at Catholic University is team chaplain, and Steve Martindale, noted social . . . well, not "climber" -- maybe "socialeer" is the best word -- is batting cleanup. On the other hand, Roger Mudd, Justice Lewis Powell and I.F. Stone are famous and successful, but they aren't players, and show no desire to be.

Then again, could they be fooling us?

Barbara Howar says: "Everybody's a player -- everybody who's not catatonic or so boring they're under a rock."

And they're getting higher-profile all the time, always on the phone to some other time zone, gossiping about somebody who lives yet somewhere else, everybody being "my best friend in the world," tax shelters, packages, points, agents . . .

Players are/were a clique in high school, or college, or '60s counter-culture politics or even newspaper offices, reeking of we-few glamor and destined for something Big. Whether they ever attain it or not doesn't matter. Nor are they necessarily terrific athletes, scholars, dancers, lovers or anything else in particular. Looks mean nothing, either -- look at Henry Kissinger. It's a certain quality, and either you have it or you don't, whether you want it or not.

What happened to going with the flow? Finding your own space? Getting yours?

They're all gone, a memory players merely pay homage to when they say: "One of these days I've gotta slow down and start smelling the roses."

What happened to simple hustling, status-seeking and social-climbing?

They're still around.

But hustlers, for instance, are so obviously in it for something , i.e. money or country-club memberships, while players like to cultivate a hell-for-leather insouciance, like Zbigniew Brzezinski wearing his cowboy hat, or toting a machine-gun when checking out the situation in Afghanistan. Players want most of all to be living legends, straddling the respective charismas of outlaws and picks of the litter.

Nor do players seek traditional status, or climb socially. In fact, they favor a certain crassness, putting out cigarettes in their champagne glasses, putting their feet up on desks. Player women swear violently.

Players are people who make you feel like you're not talking fast enough, and if the conversation is on the phone, you get the feeling they've got somebody more important than you on hold. Like God.

Since people started making fun of them for talking about real estate prices, players aren't sure what to talk about.

Players specialize in piquant, even arch, contradiction.

Daniel Moynihan maintains full players status by talking about his Hell's Kitchen boyhood in a Harvard stutter. John Kenneth Galbraith worries about the working man while racing William Buckley down the ski slopes at Gstaad. Novelist Barbara Raskin scored a player coup recently by showing up at a party with someone she described as a member of the Palestine Liberation Organization. S.I. Hayakawa did it with his tam, and with his falling asleep in the Senate.

Averell Harriman is a player but doesn't need to be. Woody Allen is a non-playing superplayer. Ramsey Clark doesn't seem to realize the rules have changed. David Kennerly, President Ford's White House photographer, hasn't done anything that anybody knows about for years, but he's still first string.

Alfred Kahn will be formidable when he quits government and starts writing for op-ed pages.

Surgeon Michael DeBakey deserved a game ball for not charging the shah for his operation in Egypt.

Elizabeth Taylor doen't want to be a player but is.

Ralph Nadar is a player and doesn't know it. Gene McCarthy isn't a player and doesn't know it.

Neither is/does Stewart Mott, the millionaire liberal philanthropist, but it isn't for lack of trying.

Here's how to spot them, all the better to join them, beat them or just avoid them. (Sometimes you want to avoid them. Get caught in a conversation between two players, and you'll understand the meaning of the old expression about the rock and the hard place.) Player Costume

The most prominent accessory is a telephone worn on the shoulder, like a Jimmy Breslin publicity still. Outerwear is the trenchcoat, underwear is bikini and expensive. Look for Lucchese cowboy boots in the closet, but rarely on the feet. The wristwatch is either Timex or Rolex, with digitals (Seiko or Casio black-plastic jogger model) moving up fast. The men wear colored shirts with white cuffs and collars. Women wear Diamonds-on-a-rope. All of their clothes tend to look as if bought in some other time zone, travel being crucial to the player mystique. Player Food

They're at the Palm or Lion D'Or for lunch. They used to be at the Duke's (Zeibert's), but since it closed, they're at Joe and Moe's. And sometimes the Madison Hotel coffee shop, where a splendid sight is Frank Mankiewicz, head of National Public Radio, ex-columnist, ex-McGovern aide, playing the crowd like a speed-freak working out on a xylophone.

Nora's is okay, but preferably to be saved for dinner, because, as players will tell you, "going to Nora's isn't like going out." Also Germaine's, whose owner, Germaine Swanson, is a player, but whose husband, Dick, a photographer, is not, being in the class of player role model, gonzo division. (More on role models in a minute.)

World-class players all have the unlisted phone number of Ma Maison, a restaurant in Los Angeles.

Anyhow, dinner parties are the thing for dinner. Player wives and sometimes husbands cultivate an expertise in some odd bit of cuisine, Vietnamese food or Russian blinis. Woks, once regulation issue for players, are now almost as out as fondue pots, and Cuisinarts have slipped badly. Best to have a pasta machine. Player Drug Habits

Players all claim to have taken soft drugs of devastating potency, and will puff warily on a marijuana cigarette if other players are watching, but they're generally terrified of anything weirder than Valium, which they're terrified they'll run out of. Player Sports

Tennis, of course. Squash for the social cachet. Never golf . Watch for a revival of trout-fishing. Also, players are moving out of jogging and into bodybuilding via Nautilus machines, thanks to the influence of weightlifter Arnold Schwarzenegger, a player if there ever was one, especially now that he's been squiring Maria Shriver (of the Kennedy Shrivers) around. Player Cars

Players drive Audis, Dashers, Volvos and old Mercedes. They wish there was something more comfortable to drive, but players get points for symbolic efforts to cut energy consumption. For instance, they bought wooden-bladed ceiling fans and vowed to use them in place of the air-conditioning in the summer, then they didn't. Player Locutions

Players used to use your name in the middle of sentences, George, to prove their sincerity. Then car salesmen started doing it to them. Now, George, they touch you, very lightly, on the knee or shoulder.

Players say "lady" when they mean "woman." Some of their best friends are homosexuals, whom they call "faggots" after they go home. They always say they're "broke" but what they mean is that they can only go to restaurants that take credit cards, which they call "plastic." When somebody goes truly broke, he's gone "belly up."

They used to say "thanks much" and say the plural of stewardess as "stewardi." Five years ago they would say of a male friend: "He's such a nice man." They still talk about having to punt. Things are "drop-dead" chic. They may soon be saying that things are "to die," meaning they're wonderful, but right now, in Washington, it's still too theatrical and Bohemian.

They love to be able to tell you: "You should have been here three years ago. That's when it was still the real (Greenwich Village, Key West, London, Aspen, Martinique) and none of those (homosexuals, Arabs, leisure-suit types, filthy rich, Kennedy children) had started coming." Player Role Models

Edward R. Murrow in his dirty trenchcoat, broadcasting in the middle of the London blitz; Hunter Thompson (but more before they made that awful movie about him), Willie Nelson (although players secretly prefer his ballads to his country and western songs), Fred Astaire, Zelda Fitzgerald, Dick Butkus, George Plimpton, (the player's player) Germaine Greer, William Buckley, Crazy Horse, Dylan Thomas, Jack Kennedy, Evelyn Waugh, Lillian Hellman, and Ava Gardner. Player Children

Since players are children, children come as a puzzling redundancy. Player children also think of their parents as puzzling redundancies. Pregnant players all have amniocentesis, and would even if they weren't having their first child in their mid-30s. Player Occupations

Players are preferably employed in some frivolous, essentially self-justifying profession -- i.e. journalism, law, mutual fund management, real estate speculation, presidential press secretary, the arts or consulting, especially poll-taking.

It's hard for a player to do something real for a living, such as sell tractors. Selling tractors would be just too . . . real, too material. On the other hand, dabbling in declasse trades for a while is much encouraged. Some possibilities: carpenter, farrier, welder. Farming is a classic here, burgeoning with authenticity, and certain to lose money.

Actually, players don't want to do anything, except play. They want to be law partners, foreign correspondents, senators or the other woman, but the actual business of preparing briefs, writing stories, kissing constituent babies or making love isn't all that interesting.

If it is, then they aren't playing anymore. Player Politics

They're still waiting for Camelot to come back.

For the meantime, they'll spend 1980 saying: "It's the first time in my life I ever wanted to vote Republican, but they're making it impossible for me to do it."

Then they'll secretly vote Republican, anyhow. Player Wars

Publicly, World War II is their favorite, but Vietnam was the player's dream. They started it -- John F. Kennedy, the player President, invented a whole army of players and called them the Green Berets. The problem was that wars are won -- or lost, as the case may be -- by dirty, uncharismatic, unglamorous infantrymen. Players avoided Vietnam, except as media (the late Sean Flynn, Errol's son, was a player idol).

When we started to lose, players got to play guerrilla and dissident by opposing it. Then they all went to Colorado and ran for office. Player Movies

"Manhattan," "Starting Over," any old Cary Grant movies, "Dawn Patrol," "Zorba the Greek," "Gone With the Wind" and "Network," in which Faye Dunaway plays the ultimate player, a television executive whispering sweet ratings and share figures into the ear of William Holden while they make love. Player Puzzlement

Players can never figure out why they're so anxious , why they feel so unreal, why they hate getting old. They are always shocked to discover that after you've attained the top rung of the ladder, the next step puts you on a treadmill.

Now you know.

Take comfort in the fact that players are a phenomenon that came along to cure the disease known as "laid back." In another two years, we'll get a cure for players. the problem is that it will be equally repugnant.


Said the Swan of Avon: "All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players."

And Fleetwood Mac: "Players only love you when they're playing."

And don't forget: It's only a game.