Is there something avid in the way they handle the money, the tan hundreds, the little gold five hundreds -- lining them up, squaring them off, palming them in bundles? And out on the board, articulate fingers are constantly at work on the Chance and Community Chest cards, straightening them out, stacking them, restacking.

These Monopoly players -- are they greedy or just compulsively neat?

Every three years Parker Bros. holds a world championship of Monopoly, and this is the year to decide the national title. The world finals will be held next year in London. Forty-eight finalists from 48 states met at the Mayflower Hotel this weekend for three timed play-off rounds leading to the finale this morning.

That should be something to see, for instead of 12 tables of four players each, we will have the top four high scorers pitted against the 1984 national champion, William Forbes, a 39-year-old certified public accountant from Winter Haven, Fla.

Forbes was on hand yesterday, checking out the other players, who range from 14 to 54 years, from coal miners to insurance company presidents.

"Oh yes, there are strategies," said Forbes, who prefers to be called Jim. "There's a lot of negotiating. In the early rounds you buy everything you land on, but the trick is not to become cash poor. You have to watch your cash flow."

Monopoly, for anyone who has been asleep in the Catskills for the last 52 years, is a board game in which you land on properties named by inventor Charles Darrow after streets in Atlantic City, N.J. You can buy any property you land on and charge rent from anyone else who lands there. Once you own a block of three, the green or the yellow or magenta or blue or whatever, you can build houses on it and even hotels, raising the rent enormously. If your opponent lands on a high-rent square and can't pay, even after he mortgages his own property, he is bankrupt.

He or she, that is. Six of the finalists were women.

As play heated up in the first 90-minute round yesterday, everyone was buying lots right and left. Each foursome had a banker, speeding the game considerably. Yesterday's bankers were volunteers from American Security Bank and the National Bank of Washington.

"I go all out for this," said Paul Ingrey, 48, who owns a reinsurance firm in Morristown, N.J. As the round started he was in second place with $10,914 in assets. "It's a lot like business. You've got to be flexible. You make your plans, but then it all depends on the roll of the dice. So you change your tactics."

He plays often, wins often. Sometimes his 15-year-old daughter Ann takes him out, though.

The leader at this stage was 14-year-old Jason Pressler of Minneapolis, with $12,010. He wasn't talking much as he waited for the round to begin. He sat at his table with a supply of soft drinks.

"I don't play all that much," he said. He won his business-sponsored local tournament . . . and here he is.

The play is getting serious now. Most of the properties have been bought up and the trading has started. New Mexico and Montana each have two railroads. You can tell them by their sashes. New Mexico is Joe Martz, 42, working on his doctorate in chemical engineering. Montana is Shawn Pelowitz, 19, a college student. They both wear their glasses down on their noses.

New Mexico: I'll buy your railroads.

Montana: Maybe later.

New Mexico: I won't buy both, it's too expensive.

Phil Orbanes, the chief judge, works out of the Parker Bros. offices in Beverly, Mass. He has been doing this for nine years. He knows a lot about Monopoly.

"The players who win are the ones who understand statistics and the key strategies and are skilled at negotiating," he says. "If you're obnoxious, the other players can kill you by just refusing to trade. I've seen it happen."

Buy everything you land on early, he advises. Trade for color blocks: the orange and the red are good buys. Put houses on them when you can. Since there are only 32 houses in a Monopoly set, you can corner the market on houses. Above all, don't let up when you have someone hurting.

Of course, you want to avoid going to jail in the early stages when you're buying up property. But later on, when the board is studded with other people's properties, going to jail is the best thing that can happen, because it keeps you out of that jungle for a round or two.

"The reason this game has survived is that human nature is such a big factor. In chess it's not, generally. But in Monopoly you can gang up on the front-runner. It's vicarious excitement. I think everybody loves to handle all that money and buy lots and houses. You don't have to be in real estate to like it," Orbanes says.

New Mexico has bought the two railroads from Montana for $600, and Montana is slowly being squeezed out. Now it's New Mexico and New York's James Malerba, 33, a bank executive.

New Mexico: I'll give you Pacific for the two yellows.

New York: Well . . .

New Mexico: You gotta act fast. It's your only chance.

Voices rise. Someone has missed a turn. The judges are called over. Now more and more players are in a bind, and talk grows sharp.

"You're trying to wipe me out with negotiations," someone complains. "If you have to wipe me out, do it with the dice, not with negotiations."

His opponent smiles sheepishly, or maybe sharkishly. Minutes later the complainer goes bankrupt.

When the second round ends, Ingrey leads with a cumulative $22,753. In the first round on Saturday, 29 people went bankrupt, but many have bounced right back.

One of the early dropouts is Tom Norwood, 36, a CPA from Mississippi. He says he doesn't have time to play much, so he loses his edge. He smiles and shrugs.

"This is a game," he says, "that encourages people to be in jail."