Bill Wakefield pushed aside his escargots. He took a large, loving bite of his chicken cordon bleu. He ordered strawberry shortcake, just in case his tummy was still feeling unloved. Then he turned to me and said: "I guess some contests are better to win than others."

The scene was a swanky French restaurant near the White House, where I was making good on a promise. I had published a puzzle in this column last Tuesday called the Equation Analysis Test. It consisted of 24 coded phrases. The idea was to decode them. Whoever did it fastest would be treated to lunch.

Bill did it fastest with the mostest. A 40-year-old civil engineer for the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, he got to work at 7 a.m. last Tuesday. Discovering the puzzle, he sat down and started hacking away.

An hour later, Bill had them all. Telling his boss he had a personal errand to run, he took the subway across town and deposited his winning entry with the security guard in The Post's main lobby. He beat Glenda Geohegan by 30 seconds, and 10 other contestants by less than 15 minutes.

But that first morning's surge was only the beginning. I have received more than 3,500 entries, about 2,800 of them correct.

The accompanying letters proved what didn't need proving: that starting this puzzle is like starting a bag of potato chips. It takes superhuman self-control not to become obsessed.

Take the case of Bob Shears of Forestville.

Just as he started working the puzzle, his very pregnant wife announced that her contractions were 10 minutes apart. "Should I call the doctor?" she asked. "Not yet," advised Bob, not entirely for medical reasons. He had answered only 12 of the 24 questions by that time.

By the time the contractions were seven minutes apart, Bob carried both his wife and his Post to the hospital. He continued to work the puzzle while his wife went deeper and deeper into labor. He got 13= B.D. just before his wife gave birth.

Almost as remarkable was the number of students who submitted ballots. Frequently, a letter came along for the ride, damning me for keeping a future lawyer (or doctor or Indian chief) from studying for finals. Among the campuses represented were Princeton, Duke, William and Mary and all the area schools. But no names, procrastinators. You know who you are.

Still twisting slowly in the wind on the questions? The answers:

7=Wonders of the Ancient World.

1001=Arabian Nights.

12=Signs of the Zodiac.

54=Cards in a Deck with the Jokers.

9=Planets in the Solar System.

88=Piano Keys.

13=Stripes on the American Flag.

32=Degrees Fahrenheit at Which Water Freezes.

18=Holes on a Golf Course.

90=Degrees in a Right Angle.

200=Dollars for a "Pass Go" in Monopoly.

8=Sides on a Stop Sign.

3=Blind Mice (See How They Run).

4=Quarts in a Gallon (or Quarters in a Game).

1=Wheel on a Unicycle.

5=Digits in a Zip Code.

57=Heinz Varieties.

11=Players on a Football Team.

1000=Words That a Picture Is Worth.

29=Days in February in a Leap Year.

64=Squares on a Checkerboard (or Chessboard).

40=Days and Nights of the Great Flood.

13=Baker's Dozen.

3=Sheets to the Wind.

I realize I wrote that a free lunch would go to the first person who mailed in a correct ballot. Obviously, it became impossible to decide which of the thousands of entries was postmarked first. Bill Wakefield caught the worm because he came up with a way to be an earlier bird. In Washington, that's the name of the game.

I'm still tabulating the ballots of those who are trying to find more than 609 words in the letters of the word "ESTABLISHMENT." As for the Equation Test, it only seems fair to do it again. Stay tuned!

Meanwhile, as Jeremiah Robinson of Northwest says to Bill Wakefield, "3=C. (H.H.H.)." That's "Three Cheers (Hip Hip Hooray).