Like a player in a high-stakes poker game, Bruce B. Keeney, the lobbyist for the Virginia Optometric Association, chose to fold today rather than allow his opponent, the Virginia Society of Ophthalmology, to see his hand.

A few minutes before the House Committee on Health, Welfare and Institutions was to vote on a bill that would allow optometrists to dispense drugs for the treatment of eye ailments, Keeney asked the bill's sponsor, Del. Franklin M. Slayton (D-Halifax) to withdraw it from consideration for this year.

Late into the night and early today, the opposing lobbyists worked to persuade a majority of the 20-member committee to support their view.

The ophthalmologists contend that allowing optometrists to prescribe therapeutic drugs would invite a host of trouble, including "death and blindness."

As voting time approached, both sides agreed on one thing: It would be close.

"We need one of three undecideds," lawyer Richard Cullen, lobbying for the ophthalmologists, said just before the voting session.

Keeney, executive director and legislative counsel for the optometrists, indicated the decisions of four members were critical to passage.

To get out of committee, the optometrists needed 11 "ayes" -- there were some jokes about "the eyes have it either way" -- while the ophthalmologists needed only a 10-10 tie to kill it.

At an 8:30 a.m. subcommittee hearing on the bill, the optometrists, in a last-minute effort to shore up support, offered three amendments to meet objections raised by committee members at Tuesday's public hearing.

But a short time later, in the main committee room, Keeney concluded that his side was short a vote or two and threw in the cards to prevent the ophthalmologists from knowing how the undecideds would vote.

"Why make a member go on record, if the opponents are not 100 percent sure how he or she would vote," he reasoned.

Slayton then announced that because "so many members thought we were moving too fast, and so as not to attempt to bulldoze it past you," he was moving to "carry this over until next year."

Afterward, in the hallway, Cullen thanked Jim Turpin, legislative director for the minority Republicans, who, with the help of former governor John Dalton, had lined up all seven Republicans on the committee against the bill. "It's one place down here where we only need three Democrats to join us to stop something," Turpin said.

Keeney was philosophical in defeat. It took from 1977 to 1983 for optometrists to win legislative approval to use diagnostic drugs.

"It's another step in educating the assembly about the abilities of optometrists," he said. " . . . We'll be back next year, and the ophthalmologists will have to squirm again."