WHEN IT WAS all over, my dreams of owning a microwave oven and becoming a millionaire shattered, I seemed unable to think clearly about anything. I drove east on Beverly Boulevard toward the Hollywood Freeway, with one word echoing grotesquely in my mind: "PUPIL, PUPIL, PUPIL, PUPIL." Soon the stomach cramps hit.

I had been on a game show. I had won $4,100 in cash, an astounding amount of money for 48 minutes' work. But I wanted more: a trip to the Virgin Islands, those kitchen appliances, a new world record for game show contestants. The swirling red white and blue lights of the show, "Bullseye," had me in a trance. I wondered how the obsession had overtaken me, and whether I would ever be free.

It began when I was working at home this winter, trying both to finish a book about China and readjust to American life. My 8-year-old son, Joe, a stranger to American television after several years abroad, had begun watching game shows in the late afternoon. Usually desperate for a break by that time of the day, I began to watch with him.

Old memories stirred. Plunked before the TV set, I recalled how, as a child, I had matched wits with the contestants on "The $64,000 Question." I remembered my bewilderment when Charles Van Doren, the big winner on the prime-time game show "21," was exposed as a cheat.

The shows Joe and I watched often ran requests for contestants. Here I was in Los Angeles, game-show capital of the world. Joe wanted to go on the shows, just as I had as a child, but no children were allowed. Why didn't I try it, and fulfill my boyhood dream?

Barry-Enright Productions, perhaps the most experienced and infamous game-show producers in the business, have offices on three floors of the Tiger International Building in Century City, the glittering high-rise district on the old 20th Century-Fox lot. When I walked into my first meeting of contestant hopefuls, the room was full and my lingering feelings of foolishness began to diminish. One lean gentleman with finely styled gray hair and tailored suit was writing on his personal information sheet: "investment banker." Other hopefuls included a plumber, a forest fire pilot, a disc jockey and a few secretaries and housewives -- several of whom had appeared on game shows before.

"Please start now," said a young woman wearing jeans and a printed blouse. She had passed out plastic-covered multiple-choice test sheets to each of us. We were told not to ask our scores afterwards. "Past experience shows that only leads to acrimony," she said.

There were 50 questions. I could not recall if Geronimo was an Apache or a Comanche, if Mozart or Bach wrote the Brandenburg Concertos and if the 1978 Superbowl was played in Pasadena, Miami or New Orleans. The test sheets collected and checked, the young woman called out about 12 names of people she said should remain. The rest, including the somewhat incredulous investment banker, left quietly.

We survivors became an audience for the professional patter of Mallory Geller, the 34-year-old "contestant coordinator" who conducted the personality checks which made up the second phase of the screening process. Geller, I learned later, went to work for Barry-Enright after winning $25,000 on their show "Tic Tac Dough" in 1979. He wore a coat and tie and an enormous beard and spoke in a half-stoned George Karlin style as he led us each through a little conversation about ourselves. Were we lively and interesting enough to be good contestants?

He told us to have fun and not worry about the money. "We want to make you happy, because that's good for you in a general way," he said. "But it's also good for us, because happy contestants make a happy audience, and a happy audience is a growing audience."

America's network and independent stations now support about 15 to 20 game shows. Most keep going because of their fast pacing, audience enthusiasm and big payoffs. Barry-Enright's three shows give away about $80,000 in cash and prizes each week. This is a far cry from the first big radio quiz hit of the 1930s, "The $64 Question," in which contestants worked their way up to the big prize of exactly 64 -- count 'em -- dollars. There are also few shows today that depend for their draw on unusual hosts, such as Groucho Marx of "You Bet Your Life" and Johnny Carson of "Who Do You Trust?" m

Quiz shows almost sank from sight in the 1960s after the scandals. They rebounded in the 1970s but have recently declined a bit due to overexposure. Barry-Enright's "Tic Tac Dough" (13.5 million viewers) and "The Joker's Wild" (9 million viewers) are established favorites, airing in about 100 cities each. According to Barry-Enright, the two shows are rated second and third among game shows, bested only by "Family feud." The show I was to be on, "Bullseye" (3.5 million viewers), has only 38 cities, but it is the company baby and they are bringing it along carefully.

That Jack Barry and Dan Enright are producing game shows at all today testifies to their own savvy and persistence and to the healing grace of time. As young New Yorkers, Barry the broadcaster and Enright, the radio engineer began to produce radio shows together in the 1940s, starting with "Juvenile Jury." By the mid-1950s they were a success on television, with a stable of shows topped by the popular, prime-time "21." But by 1959, Enright was in front of a congressional committee admitting that a "substantial part" of the company's prime-time shows had been fixed. The scandal produced several new laws against such fraud and destroyed the career of Van Doren, the Columbia University professor whose answers on "21" had been coached. Barry and Enright were banished from U.S. television. The Federal Communications Commission forced them to sell a radio station they owned. For the next decade, Enright said, he could only find work producing shows overseas.

I talked to Enright a few days after my appearance on his show. He said in the 1950s producers often coached some contestants, for long winning streaks built interest in the show. Viewers tuned in again and again to see if the champion would win again or suffer a mishap. "We were wrong," said Enright, his feet propped up in his small, sunny 11th floor office, a jumbled place of yellow fabric walls covered with pinned up memos. "We were rigged and we were wrong. The fact that it might have been general practice doesn't really mitigate the wrong. At the time we were doing it, we talked ourselves into the fact that it was entertainment."

What sells quiz shows now, he said, "is the sense of participation. One who watches the show is induced to play it." Viewers must "get involved emotionally. We have two people playing, and I think a viewer naturally decides whom they want to win or lose. Then they have the vicarious pleasure of winning, or the vicarious pain of losing." At 36, I remarked, I was the second oldest of the eight contestants who gathered the day I taped the show. "We like to have young people," Enright said. "You get more excitment and energy from young people." Advertisers also like shows that draw free-spending young adults, so that was a factor. "But firstly, beyond even the informational capacity, you need to have likability, likability or interest. We've had contestants who were not really liked, but were interesting for some reason or another." One recent contestant became so cocksure of his ability -- with huge winks to his female friend in the audience -- "that I think people tuned in to see him lose," said one "Bullseye" staff member.

Whether I passed the third stage of the elimination process depended on what Lyle Grant, the 35-year-old producer, thought of me. He asked a few questions about my background and then we chatted about "Bullseye." The show was known for having more difficult questions than "Tic Tac" or "Joker's." If on "Tic Tac" they asked a contestant to name two countries that fought at Waterloo, on "Bullseye" they would ask what country Waterloo was in. Grant, a native Californian who grew up in Kuwait and had studied at Phillips Exeter Academy and the Sorbonne, said he had trouble finding contestants on the West Coast who could answer "Bullseye" questions. "I think people on the East Coast are just better informed, they read more," he said. "People here do other things with their time. We found the ratings for "Bullseye' are high in East Coast cities, but on the West Coast, just so-so. I think the people in the East find it challenging."

Someone told me later what Grant wrote on my information sheet after our chat: "Speaks Chinese, knows Carl Bernstein, I like him." I was in for the last stage, the run-through.

Of the eight people who gathered at the Tiger building for the run-through, two of them, a tall, blond paralegal named Marcia Whistler and a wiry, graying free-lance comedy writer named Mark Grand, would meet me again at the final taping. We paired off to practice as contestants. For the first time in the elimination process, Enright himself appeared and began to play the role of the game show host, reading us the questions. To me he looked like an aging Hollywood leprechaun, slight in stature with a deep tan and a fondness for open-necked white shirts and leisure suits, usually finished off with white boots. His New York accent was so thick that we contestants, most of us Californians, had difficulty understanding some of the questions.

"Bullseye," as announcer Jay Stewart shouts out at the show's opening, is a game in which "Daring determines the fate of the PLAYER! THIS IS A GAME OF STRATEGY, LUCK AND KNOWLEDGE!!!!" It hits the television screen with a wave of noise, applause and the hypnotic, swirling red, white and blue lights, an effect that leaves an old game show hand like Enright in awe. "In the 1950s, we would have just had a couple of wooden wheels grinding around," he said. "Now it's all electronic, run by computers."

Questions on "Bullseye," are asked in groups called "contracts." When a contestant has successfully answered a group of questions, "completed his contract," he must make a crucial decision. He can "bank" the money won in the contract, usually about $600 to $1,000, and it is his to keep, but then he must allow his opponent a chance at the next contract which means he could eventually lose the game. If he decides to take the next contract himself, he must leave the money won so far in the pot. If he misses a question and his opponent answers correctly, his opponent can complete the contract and collect all the money in the pot. First person to win $2,000 wins the game.

At the run-through, Mark practiced against me the cautious strategy he planned to use in the real game. He completed a contract and banked his money. I was playing for fun, I said to myself, so I ran through one contract and then went on to another, leaving all the fictional money in the post. I tripped on a musical comedy question, "In Spain, where does the rain fall?" (I said, "Mainly on the plain," and Mark got it right, "in the plain.") But in the end I won when Mark could not remember Bill Bixby as the actor who played David Banner on "The Incredible Hulk."

Had we smiled enough? Had we projected our voices properly? Mark, Marcia, six others and I were summoned to the taping on a Monday afternoon in Studio 31 of CBS Television City. The building, surrounded by huge parking lots, sits on the corner of Fairfax Avenue and Beverly Boulevard, slightly southeast of Hollywood. Barry-Enright rents out the studio, in a section of the building where shows like "The Young and the Restless" are also taped. We had to bring an extra change of clothes -- no navy blue, light blue or beige suits, please, and no white shirts -- in case our appearance stretched over more than one of the five shows to be taped that afternoon. The producers wanted to maintain the illusion that each show was done day by day just as the TV audience saw them.

We waited in a small, comfortable lounge, watched closely by young contestant coordinators. When I wanted to make a phone call to my office in Washington, a contestant coordinator, Greg von Schottenstein, placed the call for me and relayed my questions about a story I had written to my editor so there was no chance of my breaking the studio's tight security.

Enright explained the various stage directions, mostly designed to encourage more emotion. Any money we won, he said, would not arrive until 180 days after the show was broadcast in Los Angeles and New York. "One hundred eighty days to the day," said Marcia, who had once won money on "Tic Tac." Any trips we might win, Enright said, were only for one. We had best make our bookings immediately, because the show would not pay the difference if the cost of the trip suddenly went up. Marcia said she had managed to cash in a plane ticket she had won to the Virgin Islands for a lower fare and her boyfriend came along with little extra change. "The accommodations were wonderful," she said, "but my boyfriend didn't really like it. He's afraid of the water."

We each signed a long release; we promised, among other things, not to participate in any game show parodies or run for public office for a while. The new anti-fraud laws for quiz shows, passed as a result of Barry-Enright's activities in the 1950s, were spelled out in great detail. "Try if you can to muster the grace to shake your opponent's hand if you win or lose," Enright said. "It makes us all look civilized. The table will conceal any kicks you want to deliver at the same time."

Enright would be on the set the entire afternoon, keeping an eye on his young, energetic staff and adding his own stage-whispered directions. He said often contestants in the heat of the moment would react in unexpected ways. On two separate occasions, he said, after female contestants had won huge bonus prizes upon defeating their male opponents, he called their husbands onto the stage to hug and congratulate them. "Kiss him! Kiss him!" he shouted at each woman, and each time the woman pushed her husband away and kissed her defeated opponent.

Of the nine people, five men and four women, gathered in the lounge that day, all would appear on the show -- a relief to some who had sat through an entire earlier day without being called. Six out of eight would win at least one game, and Marcia, the last contestant to appear, would be left challenging Mark, with a good chance to win money herself when the show began taping again in July. The sadder of the two losers was Joseph Baston, a Philadelphia schoolteacher who told me he had come to Los Angeles especially for the show. He had done well on two game shows a decade before, "Jeopardy" and "Sale of the Century." He still seemed to have the bug, something I would understand better as the afternoon wore on.

In the privacy of the waiting room, they agreed they were all in it for the money. "Everyone said it wasn't worth it, that I wouldn't get anything because of the taxes," said Marcia, "but I had the last laugh. I doubled my income that year." Beth Berry, the 28-year-old substitute teacher from San Pedro who would become my nemesis, looked astonished when I asked why she was there. "Why, to get some money, what else? I'm not trying to break into show business!"

Why was I there? I had told my friends it was just for a story, but I had to admit as the time grew short and my excitement increased, how much I wanted to win. I found myself trying, in an unforgiveable breach of contestant etiquette, to test my potential opponents with a few trivia questions: "What book begins, "It was a cold day in April and the clocks were striking 13?'"

I was ignored. The show had begun. We watched on a monitor. Ken Ng, the young executive recuiter from Orange Conty and the current champion, beat both Hoseph Baston and Laura Paxson, a young free-lance writer, and won a BRAND NEW CAR!!!! Mike Crudden, a factory supervisor, beat Ken. Debbie Villant, a secretary, beat Mike when he couldn't remember who wrote "The Three Musketeers."

"Jeezus," I said to myself."I can't remember that one either."

"You're on, Jay!"

Time began to slow down. The edges of things began to blur.Coming from the darkened back stage, the set seemed like a Potemkin village, a collection of glittering wheels and multicolored boards seemingly dropped down onto the barren sound stage like backdrops for a play. The small audience sitting in permanent box seats in front applauded and cheered frantically on cue. Cables and wires snaked about the floor. Four cameras skidded in various directions. Lights flared down from above. Coordinators and stagehands gestured maniacally. Enright's stage whispers often growled above the tumult.

I remember stumbling through the introductory dialogue, written by associate producer Kathy Whitehead after a long telephone conversation with me. "What do you do for The Post Jay?" asked host Jim Lange. "I cover the states east of the Rockies, everything from entertainment to earthquakes, Jim," I said.

Debbie missed the first question, to name a jazz musician who received the Medal of Freedom. I guessed right, "Duke Ellington." One contestant coordinator, Chris Campbell, beat his chest at me, a stage signal meaning "Emote! Emote!" But I was too terrified and excited. answered nine more questions on "Famous Awards." I guessed correctly that the iron cross was awarded in Germany. I was more confident that Linus Pauling was the Nobel laureate who like Vitamin C.

I won! At that point, greed, ambition and other nameless, emotions took over. I became, I like to think, someone else. I envisoned breaking all "Bullseye" records. I saw myself quitting my job and retiring to Carmel to write science fiction. I anticipated several trips around the world. In the "bonus" part of the show, allowed after each winning game, I missed acquiring several kitchen appliances when the dreaded "lightening" appeared in one computer-driven window of the stage set, but I remained confident. They would never get me off the show.

Beth, the schoolteacher, was my next opponent. I answered seven straight questions on the "World of Astronomy."

What lunar sea did the Apollo mission land on?

"Tranquility."

You're RIGHT!! The Udience of about 150, egged on by Chris Campbell leaping into the air, cheered lustily.

What part of the sun do you see during an eclipse?

"The corona."

"Right AGAIN!"

(How could they stop me? Didn't they know I wanted to be an astrologer until I was 16 years old?)

What star in the Little Dipper never moves?

"Polaris."

"I'll have to get the judge's opinion on that."

(Fools! What possible other answer could there be.)

"We'll accept that answer, Jim."

"Okay," Jim said. "Another answer could have been 'The North Star.'"

(I'm dealing with amateurs here.)

I won again! My total now was $4,100. I failed to win the bonus again, but it was immaterial. I was unstoppable. During a commercial break, I asked the cheif stagehand his name, certain we would be seeing a lot of each other. Beth was my opponent again, because I had not given her a chance to answer any questions.

The new category was "Medical Facts." A piece of cake.

Where are the tibia and fibula?

Huh? I guessed: "The arm."

"The leg," she said. She had an unfair advantage, she later admitted. She had once broken hers.

I was in trouble. Beth had to miss or I was out. I was too good to lose, I thought. And sure enough, I got another chance.

What is the name of the opening in the eye that expands and contracts?

Beth guessed, "The iris?"

"I'm sorry, that's not right. Jay?"

(Of course, an easy one, that little thing there. What is it called? Shouldn't be hard for someone who has just run seven straight on astronomy. Gad, not much time left. They said four seconds, four seconds!!!!)

My lips moved: "The eye hole?"

"Oh, I'm sorry, Jay," said Jim, with a disappointed look, "it's the PUPIL."

The word began to reverberate in my head, like one of the Chinese gongs I used to admire in the forbidden city. PUPIL, PUPIL, PUPIL. Hadn't I written that word five times that very morning in a story about school busing, PUPIL, PUPIL.

I barely heard Beth successfully answer the last question about parts of the brain. I was in a daze. I shook hands with Beth but the camera wasn't on us. Chris frantically signaled to me to shake hands again. I thought he wanted me to exit, stage right. I stumbled off the stage, Enright was there, yelling in my ear, "SHAKE HANDS, SHAKE HANDS!" I leaped back on stage and did my duty. Enright looked coldly at me and Chris. I walked off, not really conscious. I signed a few forms verifying my winnings. Another young coordinator escorted me, with my extra suit draped over my shoulder, into the chilly studio corridor where some crew members were playing football. He left me at the studio door and I walked out into the parking lot, alone, inheralded.

Pupil, pupil, pupil.

Was there a mistake? They said they let some people back on if they made a mistake. Maybe the tibia wasn't in the leg.(I actually looked it up.) I could not eat. I had trouble sleeping. The stomach cramps came and went.

It was days before the obession passed and I returned to my former self, a nice if somewhat colorless personality I had grown fond of. Interviewing Enright helped. He was warm and sympathetic. I found solace on his wall in a homey embroidered motto: "IT'S ONLY A GAME SHOW."

Maybe so. But I've been brushing up on my state capitals. Am I too old for "Tic Tac Dough?"