Anwar Sadat is a man who admires the bold gamble. The trouble with former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, he once remarked scornfully, was that Rabin was "afraid" of peace. Golda Meir, he suggested, was more his type. "Even though she is a "hawk,'" Sadat said, "she at least has guts."

After today, nobody can ever accuse Anwar Sadat of lacking guts. In breaking with 30 years of Arab theology to travel to the "den" of the hated Israelis, the Egyptian president has taken one of the boldest diplomatic gambles of this century.

If it succeeds, Sadat may well win a place in history as the visionary leader who brought the Middle East a giant step closer to peace. If his gamble fails, the Egyptian President will almost certainly lose his job - and perhaps his life.

Few people had any inkling of Sadat's capacity for leadership when he came to power following the death of his friend, Gamal Abdel Nasser, in 1970.

Egyptians widely regarded the interim president as a lackluster nonentity, and snickered about how he had missed the start of the revolution that ousted King Farouk in 1952 because he had been at the movies.

Those who doubted that Sadat could take daring, decisive action, however, were in for a surprise. Getting wind of a planned coup d'etat in May 1971, he quickly arrested seven senior government officials including Moscow's protege, former Vice President Ali Sabry.

Sadat then stunned Egyptians by putting on display a mountain of tape recordings that the plotters had collected from bugging his home and offices. Presiding over a public bonfire. Sadat burned the tapes - and pledged that Egypt would no longer be a police state.

That move gained Sadat a measure of popular support, but it was a timorous first step next to his decision to break with the Soviet Union the following year.

Expelling the 20,000 Russian military advisers who had trained Egypt's troops, Sadat gambled on keeping his generals happy by obtaining an alternate flow of weapons from the United States.

That gamble was not an immediate success. The Nixon administration welcomed Sadat's turn to the west, but was of no mind to become the chief military supplier of Israel's enemy.

With diplomatic efforts to get Israel to withdraw from occupied Arab territory stalemated, Sadat decided that an even bigger gamble - "shock therapy," he later called it - was necessary.

In October 1973, Egyptian troops stormed across the Suez Canal and pushed Israeli forces back into the Sinai.

Egyptian troops managed to dig in and cling to a foothold on the eastern back of the waterway.

To this day, large posters adorn the walls of buildings in Cairo, hailing Sadat as the "Hero of the Crossing."

Sadat was getting a new bet down, however, even before the end of the Mideast war. He decided that the best way to save his trapped Third Army - and negotiate a peaceful return of Arab territory - was to put his money on Henry Kissinger.

This wager paid quick dividends. The United States forced the Israelis to give up their efforts to starve Sadat's army, and the Egyptian leader soon astonished the Arab world by lavishing hugs and kisses on American's Jewish secretary of State, "My friend Henry."

Sadat next took the lead by agreeing to the first Sinai accord with the Israelis. When negotiations on a second Sinai pact broke down the following year, it appeared this gamble had been a failure - and that the Middle East was once again drifting toward war.

Sadat, however, had a new surprise in store. Rather than cutting his losses, he decided to increase his bet on Henry. Egypt, he said, would go ahead and reopen the Suez Canal - even though Israeli guns remained entrenched in the Sinai less than 10 miles away.

This decision, hoo, proved a winner. Late in the summer, a new agreement was finally signed with Jerusalem - and Israeli troops pulled back out of artillery range into the Sinai.

Syrian President Hafez Assad, however, bitterly denounced Sadat's decision to make a new deal with Israel, and Arab radios from Tripoli to Baghdad vilified Sadat as a "traitor."

A successful gambler, however, is often aided by a little luck. The fates soon proved to be on Sadat's side. The long-smoldering civil war in Lebanon erupted into flames, deflecting Arab attention from Sadat's supposed treachery. When the Egyptian leader came to the aid of the Palestinians in Lebanon, he found himself back in Arab grace.

Last year, following the election of President Carter, Sadat decided that the time was right for more "shock therapy." This time, instead of a new war, he launched a peace offensive.

In a series of chats with visiting American congressmen, he stressed his willingness to sign a peace pact with Israel. "In six months, we can be in Geneva and negotiate a comprehensive peace settlement," he told one U.S. delegation. Responded Connecticut's Sen. Abraham Ribicoff: "I believe you are a unique leader."

The urbane Sadat, in his Savile Row suits often strikes Americans as remarkably Westernized, but Sadat likes to think of himself as a "fellah" - a simple Egyptian villager. To this day, Sadat often visits the poor Nile delta village of Mit Abu al Kom, where he was born on Christmas Day in 1917. to pray at the village mosque.

Sadat's father was a civilian army clerk and his mother was Sudanese, which accounts for his dark complexion. His family left the village for Cairo when Anwar was in his teens, and he was sent to the prestigoous Abbassieh Military Academy where he became friends with a boy a year ahead of him - Gamal Abdel Nasser.

During World War II, Sadat was a member of the anti-British Moslem brotherhood. As such, he fought to expel Britain from Egypt even as his Israeli host. Menahem Begin, was fighting to expel Britain from what was then Palestine.

Arrested by the British in 1942. Sadat was charged with pro-Nazi activity. He spent two years in prison before managing to escape. Sadat was arrested twice more in the mid-1940s and accused of involvement in assasination plots, but was acquitted both times.

Regaining his army commission in 1950, he resumed his friendship with Nasser and was one of the founders of the "Free Officers" movement that deposed Farouk in 1952.

For a while after the coup, he served as managing editor of Al Gomhuoriya, one of Cairo's three daily newspapers.