All afternoon people came to look at it. They pressed up to the velvet ropes, nudged each other and gawked at the casino that was almost theirs to touch.

"It gives me itchy palms," one woman said.

It gives Resorts International itchy corporate palms, too, because when the velvet ropes were lowered and the public was admitted to the Resorts casino for the first time Wednesday, it was all in fun.

Casino practices were stood on their head. The money was free, but if you wanted a drink you had to bring your own from the bar. Starting May 26, Gamblers' drinks will be on the house but they'll have to bring their own money and Resorts will begin to recover its $50 million investment in Atlantic City.

The play money night delighted many of the throng that crowded the casino for six hours and left at midnight only reluctantly.

"I've found it," one woman said." I'm going to mortgage the house and my husband and come back here."

A man in a brown leisture suit slapped his hands together and raced to the telephone. I'm telling you, get on down here," he said into the receiver. "Well, then, bring your mother. They got everything here and the place is crazy with reporters. I was just interviewed by Channel 13."

Others were less enthusiastic about the cameras. A man rose from the baccarat table as a TV crew approved. He asked when their film would be shown, and settled back into his chair. "What the hell," he said to his female companion, "My wife doesn't watch morning news shows."

Among the first people in the casino were two nuns attending a medical conference in the hotel. "Presumably they're looking for the bingo," a gambler remarked. The nuns said they weren't going to gamble, but didn'd mind others doing it.

The crowds surged into the casino in all kinds of dress - a sprinkling of off-the-shoulder gowns, a lot of polyester, a couple of windbreakers and a few jeans. Hours before the opening, two women were answering telephone in the hotel's public relations office.

"Is there a dress code?" one asked, holding a telephone on her shoulder. The other shrugged.

"No beachwear," she said into the phone.

It was hard to find a soul who disapproved of casinos at Resorts last night. Especially since the management removed the portrait of a founder of the hotel that has now become Resorts. Sara (Mother) Leeds' family asked that the Quaker founder's portrait come down so that it would not inhabit the same building with gambling. The Atlantic City Press reported.

The atmosphere was rather like the opening of a college production. The dealers, all New Jersey residents, were clearly chosen for their youth and wholesomeness. The men wore dinner jackets ("Have you ever seen so many tuxedos?" a woman asked her companion.) And the women wore black pants and vests some with black bow ties.

Although mustaches and fashionably long hair keep the male dealers from looking menacingly straight in what is meant to be a glamourous atmosphere, the young dealers give the casino a squeaky-clean look. Many had opening-night jitters, but they were all eager to help players who knew nothing of the games.

"Do you want another tissue?" one of the seasoned casino bosses asked a profusely sweating dealer in the first hour of bacarat play. "Relax, you're doing fine," he reassured him.

"That number is called your point, ma'am," the stickman at a craps table explained. At a roulette table nearby, a croupier quietly explained why a woman could only lose if she continued to bet equal amounts on both red and black each spin of the wheel. "But, I'll lose slowly," she said. True, he conceded, after warning her again about zero and double zero.

Resorts International, which began life as a small New Jersey company called Mary Carter Paints, is not blessed with a squeaky-clean image. Past connections with the underworld have been widely reported, and Resorts was once aided by Bernie Cornfeld's Investors Overseas Service before that fund left many of its investors at sea.

Resorts officials deny all charges of impropriety, and the company has won a temporary license from New Jersey's Casino Control Commission after it stole a march on others interested in opening casinos here by gambling and spending money before New Jersey's statewide referendum legalized casinos for Atlantic City.

As a result of its gamble, Resorts may have the Atlantic City market to itself for one to two years.

"I'm a gambler," a New Jersey resident at the baccarat table said last night." I go to Las Vegas four or five times a year, but now I'm nervous. This place is so near. I'll be here every week."

About 53 million people live within 300 miles of Atlantic City. "This place is going to be crowded the day it opens and every day. They'll be jammed," the gambler said.

When the minimum amount to play is a real $20 instead of a fak $5, it's unlikely the players at the baccarat table will applaud the dealers as they go off duty to take a break.

"They're not losing the rent money yet," one dealer remarked. On opening night there weren't any losers.