From his first waking moment around 7 each morning, while shaving and eating and going through the motions of his real estate appointments, there would be the craving for the afternoon post time at the track.

By 10:30, Rick would be "itchy," and by noon he would be on his way "to the high" he would feel at Pimlico or Laurel or Bowie, wherever the horses were running.

By the time he plunked down his $2 admission fee, pushed through the turnstile and caught the smell of the track in his nostrils, Rick, by his own account, would be "king -- king in my own little fantasy world."

Gambling gives the same rush to compulsive gamblers like Rick that addicts would get from a drug that was stimulant, tranquilizer and painkiller rolled into one, according to psychiatrist Robert Custer.

"Nobody's invented a drug that effective, but if they did, you know it would be abused," he says. "So it is with gambling."

And so in the quiet suburbs of Baltimore, the state of Maryland has opened a center to treat compulsive gamblers and their families -- the first center of its kind in the nation.

Even before the center opened for business this month, calls were coming in from Detroit and Chicago, Philadelphia and Baton Rouge, as well as from all over Maryland.

There was the young woman in the South worried about her investment counselor mother who could not stop betting. There was the Midwestern businessman who lost thousands of dollars a day on gambling, but was so wealthy he never hit bottom. There was the lawyer from another part of the country who was having his businessman-client followed, fearful that the man would bet away his business and ruin the economy of the small town where he lived.

The Maryland center's counselors should have been prepared for the onslaught, aware that a 1974 survey indicated there were 1.1 million probable compulsive gamblers in the nation and knowing the state counseling clinic was unique. But they were shocked to find they had a waiting list of 100 when the center opened its doors to take clients last week.

Those who have called the center's 24-hour hotline have been, as the counselors say, "in crisis" -- at the end of a losing streak where the stakes have been not only money, but friends, family, job, reputation, often their sanity and sometimes their freedom.

For Rick, whose name is actually something else, the end came on Dec. 20, 1976, as he stood in a bitter wind at Laurel Race Course with a stack of losing tickets in his pocket and four $100 bills to his name. He had planned to bet that last bit of money the next day, but the track was frozen and the races canceled.

Rick never went back to any track again.

On that freezing Monday, Rick was $40,000 in debt. Years before, the 45-year-old salesman who still had the clean-cut, boyish good looks of the Big Ten fraternity man he once was, had turned to embezzling and forgery to feed his gambling habit. Now he was facing a federal indictment for failing to file income tax return for seven years.

Rick insists it was not the debts or pending charges that were the bottom for him, but rather a feeling "of such absolute mental pain, such tremendous hatred of myself, of what gambling had done to me and what I had done to my family . . . that I knew I had to change my life or end it."

Now Rick will be a counselor at the new Pikesville center, an inviting colonial-style brick house nestled in the woods near a state hospital for the aged.

Funded this year with nearly $100,000 from the state, the center will counsel compulsive gamblers, helping them to stop gambling and, just as essential, to renegotiate and repay their debts, to find work, to rebuild family realtionships and to deal with their legal problems, according to the counselors.

The emphasis will be on the practical.

"In crisis it does no good to say 'How do you fell about that?' You've got to get the creditor or the loan shark off your back, get food and nourishment into the mouths of your wife and kids," says Robert Politzer, the center's administrative director.

One of the center's first clients, who has come to be known as "The Thin Man" because confidentiality is the rule at the center, came with his gambling problem, oblivious to the more immediate danger of his bread-and-milk diet and the 50 pounds he had lost in a year. "Apparently, he was trying to slowly kill himself," said one of the counselors.

Part of the "contract of goals" the counselor negotiated with this man -- a ritual that will be followed in every case -- involved his having a full meal that day and calling the counselor each day after that to report what he had eaten.

Once the crisis period is over -- and because the research on this problem is so meager no one knows how long it will take -- the center will try to help the gambler rebuild his life, according to James Morrow the director of counseling.

In this phase, the gambler will have time to get insight into why he is addicted to dice, or slots, or horses, or cards or the commodities futures, whatever keeps him in action.

Psychiatrist Custer, a center consultant who for years ran the only inpatient compulsive gambling treatment program in the country at a Veterans Administration hospital in Ohio, believes counselors will find one common thread among their clients. The gamblers are usually exceptionally bright, competitive, hardworking, energetic individuals -- one who seem destined for success, but lack self-esteem, Custer says.

"Gambling is their ideal vehicle. They can show off, splurge or squander to impress other," says Custer. "Their success in business does not improve their self-steem, neither does their early winning at gambling.

Clinicians would say that the compulsive gambler is a person "chronically and progressively preoccupied with gambling" to the point where it disrupts his personal, family and vocational life.

Community counselor Morrow puts it more simply: "The social gambler knows how to quit, the professional gambler knows how to win. The compulsive gambler doesn't know how to do either.

Morrow expects up to 70 percent of the center's calls to come from spouses of gamblers, and they will be treated, too. The focus is on family treatment, much of it done in group therapy sessions, with the fees set by an income-based sliding scale that starts at zero.

One thing the center will not do is provide money to pay off the loan shark or get the lights turned on -- a "bail out" in the gambler's parlance.

The fledgling center was the brain-child of Clarence Canary, a genteel, red-haired, retired federal bureaucrat, who is rabidly opposed to legalized gamgling. In 1977 he read an article by Custer about treating compulsive gamblers and took it to Del. Robert Neall (R-Anne Arundel County). By 1978 Neall was shepherding a bill through the Maryland legislature with little opposition.

The mysteries about compulsive gambling are many, says Morrow and counselors do not even know how long a cure takes, or if there really is one.

Rick, who will celebrate an anniversary of sorts next month for three straight years without gambling, still gets "a twinge every now and then about the track.

"I have a mental picture of the floor plan of every track I've ever been to, where the bar stands are, where the TV screens are, where I'd watch the race replays," he says. "Therace track still crosses my mind, once, maybe twice a week. I know I'll never be able to totally purge it."