IT'S 1962. Walter "Corky" Devlin, recently split from his wife, is playing blackjack at the Sahara in Las Vegas. It's his first night in Vegas. He is depressed. But he is a good gambler. And he is lucky. "I began with about $400 in my pocket," he remembers. He wins $22,000. "I handed out money to people, strangers, threw money in the air. The manager sees me laughing, and he invites me to come back anytime. I should have known then what I found out the hard way.I paid that 22 grand back 99 times."

It's 1970. Devlin is in a suite at Caesar's Palace. A private poker session. He's hot. It goes on for three days. He wins $144,000. He sleeps a while and returns to the casino. In 18 hours he loses the whole bundle. "I was looking for a grand to get back in the game." Broke, he borrows money to get out of town, bound for San Francisco. "I felt alone, no friends, despising myself. I was the biggest piece of garbage God put on the face of the world. All that was left was me and the habit."

"Corky" Devlin -- a compulsive gamlber. Maybe you remember the name. Basketball star at George Washington in the early '50s. All-Southern Conference. Three years in the National Basketball Association. Probably you never heard of him again. Literally millions of dollars -- two, maybe three -- passed through his hands as he roamed from town to town, crisscrossing the country, playing the horses, gambling in casinos, his life spiraling downward.

Life as a compulsive gambler cost Devlin dearly; three marriages, two prison terms, several suicide attempts, voluntary commitment to a psychiatric institution, years in psychoanalysis, a child put up for adoption.

Devlin's problem is more common than many realize. Gamblers Anonymous, a self-help organization, says there are 6 million compulsive gamblers in the United States. But little attention was given to them until a number of studies in the late 1970s pointed out the extensive social costs in the very areas Devlin experienced. In fact, experts in the field think compulsive gambling may be the largest unrecognized illness in the country.

"I wounded everyone I came in contact with," says Devlin, 49, white-haired, 6 feet 5, lean as in his younger days. "I gave my widowed mother a bum check for $1,700. I remember looking up to heaven and saying, 'Oh my God. I'm sick, I'm sick.' I even robbed the Maury Stokes memorial fund for $2,000. I can remember sitting alone in the top row of a state fair race track in Nebraska, going over the scratch sheet 2,000 miles from nowhere and thoroughly ashamed of what I was doing.

"Remorse, guilt -- I was ravaged by all of the emotions. I was some kind of a despicable human."

The nightmare lasted 17 years.

Devlin grew up in an eight-family tenement in Newark, N.J. When he was 17 years old, his father took the proverbial walk for a loaf of bread and never returned. But in a few years his mother remarried and his stepfather, Joe Corcoran, turned out to be a positive influence, and Devlin took his nickname from him. Growing up on inner-city basketball courts, Devlin became known as "the White Shadow" among the black players of his neighborhood. He went on to star at Newark's Central High and received 72 inquiries from colleges interested in his talent. But he graduated sixth from the bottom of the class ("The other five were from the basketball team") and went nowhere in a hurry. After taking several months off working around the docks of Newark, he followed Corcoran's advice and enrolled at Potomac State College in Keyser, W. Va., where he improved his grades. In 1951, he transferred to George Washington and became one of the Colonials' greatest players.

In a game against Georgetown, "I got the winning basket to beat them by one point. The stands emptied, everyone screaming and yelling, what a script, and this old guy got me by the arm. I can't understand him, then I realize he's yelling, 'I'm your father.' I asked him, 'Where you been all night?'" His father had followed Devlin's career in the newspapers. They saw each other a few times, but shortly after that his father died. Devlin was off to the pros. He ended up in Los Angeles, playing briefly with the Lakers, became part-owner of a night club and married.

But one disastrous week in the mid-50s, he says, turned his life around.

He and his wife broke up, their daughter remaining with his wife. He took up residence in the Y at Glendale. "It was the next day when a preacher friend and a cop knocked on the door," Devlin recalls. The preacher says, "Joe Corcoran died of a heart attack." Back in Newark for the funeral service, he says, he was served with divorce papers. After that, he couldn't eat or sleep, he says, and lost 60 pounds. He made a half dozen aimless trips across the country; on one, he stopped in Vegas and made his $22,000 killing.

But winning at gambling failed to ease the strain of his marriage break-up. "It was like an emotional aspirin," he says. He also began losing, and gambling more heavily -- horses, wheels, dice, numbers. He could win thousands and lose it overnight. He followed the typical pattern of compulsive gamblers: betting lightly at first, increasing the amounts as the winning increased, winning big and feeling it can happen again as losing sets in, borrowing to get even as debts pile up, betting even more and with a sense of urgency that seems to diminish one's gambling skills.

Devlin returned to Washington and spent most of his time at race tracks. In the Atlantic City entries one day, he noticed a horse called Turbo Jet II. "Two weeks before, the horse had been a galloping winner and now he was going off at 6 to 5," Devlin said. "I persuaded my mother to cash a $1,700 check, knowing that she only had $1,900 in her life savings." The horse that won that day was Uncle Perry.

Devlin had left his car in downtown Atlantic City and lacked the $2 bus fare to get back. He hitchhiked. "What a feeling," he says. "I stood in the parking lot and remember yelling, 'What did I just do? I don't want to be this guy.'" Lacking money even to pay tolls, he drove home the long way, through towns, and went directly to the community health department in Arlington. He was referred to a psychiatrist, who in turn recommended that he enter Western State Hospital in Staunton, Va.

When he got out, after 96 days, "I had $27 in my pocket, took a bus to Winchester, hitchhiked to Shenandoah, bet some horses and won $75 or $100."

Back in Washington, Devlin says, he underwent psychiatric treatment, took a job as a clothing salesman and married a second time. He says he persuaded his wife that he had given up gambling, and they moved to an old farmhouse in Maryland. But it wasn't far from Laurel race track, and soon Devlin made a big hit there -- $8,000. He hid the money all over the house.

"I even put $2,300 in an old coal stove. One day I came downstairs and someone had started a fire in it. I just stared and couldn't say a word." He laughed. He was sitting at a back table of a neighborhood restaurant, nervously twisting a glass from hand to hand.

"A few days later I bought a car and we drove to the coast, but I couldn't get past the Bay Meadows track north of San Francisco."

They settled in Monterey, says Devlin, but one night in 1965, driving a rented car, he was picked up by police. "It could have been easy," he says. "It was just an overdue rental and the judge fined me $160. I knew I only had $40 in the checking account, so I wrote a bad check to pay the fine." Devlin was quickly picked up again and brought before the same judge, who told him, "I never saw a man try so hard to put himself in jail. You are in custody for 11 months." Devlin became a trusty at the Santa Clara County holding facility in Palo Alto.

After being released, he says, he lived for a time in a friend's trailer in Palo Alto and tried to quit gambling, but suffered severe withdrawal symptons.

"I would literally lock myself in with no race sheets around. But then I would wonder what horse was running and watch the clock thinking I could still get a bet down. I would really begin to sweat, pace the room, my nerves torn apart, I had one good suit in the cleaners and no money to get it out. I had a T-shirt and jeans. I was never so down in my life."

Mostly, he drifted. He says his second marriage ended and a third quickly failed. In 1967, he was arrested in Oakland for passing bad checks and sentenced to Soledad prison for 18 months.

"I ended up in a cell with a guy who murdered three people," Devlin says. "And he had hung his last cell mate. He was 25 years old and had been institutionalized 18 of those years. Four guards would show up to take him to a shower and haul him off in dog chains. I spent five months in a cell with him."

When he got out, he took a number of odd jobs: in a car wash, as a gardener, as a bartender, continued to drift and even worked for a time in a gambling casino.

Finally, returning to Washington, Devlin read a magazine article about compulsive gambling that mentioned Dr. Robert L. Custer, a psychiatrist now with the Veterans Administation in Washington who began treating compulsive gamblers in 1973. "I practically went to him on my hands and knees begging him for help," Devlin says. It was June 1979. Custer helped.

Now Devlin keeps busy. He is a member of the National Council on Compulsive Gambling, Inc., a 200-member nonprofit organization dedicted to helping gamblers. He is enrolled at George Washington University in an advanced degree program in human resource development; his ambition is to work as an addiction counselor. He assists at the Johns Hopkins Compulsive Gambling Counseling Center in Mount Wilson, Md., helping in community relations and acquisition of grants-in-aid. He is heading an action group working to get congressional legislation "to create a national commission on compulsive gambling"; there are bills in both houses. And he has been invited by the New Jersey governor's office to serve on a task force researching the impact of increased legalized gambling in New Jersey.

Devlin lives in Bethany Beach, Del., and comes to Washington about twice a week. Keeping a strict routine, he gets up at 5:30 a.m. and runs (sometimes so far he has to take a cab back home). About 6:30 he usually calls three men with gambling problems and they talk. Around 9 he cooks his own breakfast, then heads for a nearby hotel for a half-hour sauna. Back in his apartment, he writes about his long ordeal. He skips lunch and divides the afternoon between writing and phone calls related to his several projects.

Custer helped him, Devlin says. He can't say for certain he's cured and neither can the doctor. "We really don't know," says Custer, who believes that compulsive gambling is a psychological addiction that should be classified as a disease. "We haven't been treating compulsive gamblers that long. But Mr. Devlin has his energy drive in another direction. This is what we try to do, get them interested in other activities."

"When I went to him," Devlin says of Custer, "I told him I was headed for the bridge. I don't feel that way now. I have as much control over myself now as I can possibly have."