Rep. Cecil Heftel of Hawaii stared gravely at the 13 cards his bridge partner had just spread on a table in an apartment house basement near the National Zoo.

It was Jan. 5, 1981, opening day of the 97th Congress. Early that afternoon, Heftel had been on the House floor, greeting colleagues.But he had decided he "couldn't take Tip O'Neill's speeches anymore," so just before dusk, he had drifted over to this bridge parlor known as the Dupont Circle Club.

Now it was the last hand of the day, and nearly $25 was riding on whether the congressman could make a grand slam in spades, doubled, in a penny-a-point game.

Heftel is a popular lawmaker, recently reelected to a third term with 80 percent of the vote, and on this day he technically was breaking the law by playing bridge for money with a retired D.C. policeman, a used car salesman and a newspaper. But this was no time to worry about such trifling concerns.

As the kibitzers edged their chairs closer -- trying to take all 13 tricks is always high drama in bridge -- Heftel trumped a diamond. Then he played three spades, a club and another diamond. Finally, smiling, he showed his hand in triumph. The rest of the tricks were his. The grand slam was home.

Along with 250,000 people in the Washington area, Cecil Hefted has the bridge bug. In a city that takes itself and its work seriously, bridge is taken, if possible, more seriously.

Most Washington bridge addicts share two characteristics: They have large chunks of time that need filling, and they do not have any other hobby that fills the chunks quite so pleasurably. Beyond that, however, local "bridgies" are a diverse lot.

Bow-tied Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens often is seen playing in local tournaments -- but so is bridge professional Lance Marable, a bearded, blue-jeaned 28-year-old who attributes his bridge success to "being high on marijuana as much of the day as i can."

Stella (Betsy) Betz, nearly 80, is an avid tournament player -- but so is Andrew Kaufman, a 13-year-old junior high school student from Bowie who is such a prodigy that he probably will attain life master rank this year.

Washington long has been the home of an extraodinary number of good players. Six world champions and 16 national champions live in the area. There is a higher ratio of life masters to players here than in any metropolitan area in the country. On the national bridge tourament circuit, Washington is known as "Tough City."

It also is one of bridge's most sharply segregated cities.

The Washington Bridge League, an affiliate of bridge's national governing body, the American Contract Bridge League, has 2,400 members. Only about 25 are black. There is a separate organization, the Washington Chapter of the American Bridge Association, all of whose 600 members are black. Members of the two leagues almost never play against one another.

The de facto segregation of bridge leagues here in the nation's capital has a long history. Washington bridge was officially segregated until 1956, when Victor Daly, a black Labor Department mediator, tried to join the WBL. His application was rejected, even though Daly ran a weekly game that was franchised by the white league.

"This was a southern city," said Daly, recalling the frustrations of only 25 years ago, "and a segregated one."

Daly and four other blacks finally were admitted to the league in 1961, an act that so upset several dozen WBL members that they broke ranks and formed the whites-only Northern Virginia Bridge Association. That splinter group long since has desegregated, but never has rejoined the WBL.

Today, according to officials of both bridge leagues, the existence of two basically racially segregated organizations has less to do with institutional racism than with social preference.

"It's not because we're separatist," says Katye Gibbs, one of only eight Washington area blacks to hold life master rank in both leagues. "It's because we feel more comfortable at ABA tournaments. At ABA tournaments, I play against my friends. At ACBL tournaments, the level of competition is higher. I play to kill."

The two leagues hold a joint tournament each January, but ABA participation usually is small.

"Some uncomfortable things occur from time to time," says Art Reid, a Silver Spring lawyer who is president-elect of the national ABA. "People make cracks about play. There's the impression of condescension on the part of WBL people. Who needs it?"

Reginald Chapman, a 32-year-old Northeast Washington schoolteacher who is the fourth highest ranked ABA player in the country, almost always avoids WBL tournaments, even though he easily could hold his own in them.

"The main thing is, I like to win," said Chapman, who has won every national ABA title but one, yet has only eight ACBL master points. "I'm not looking to be a pioneer as far as race goes. It would be nice if blacks and whites could get together in bridge, but it doesn't worry me that much. It's still bridge. And coming in first is still coming in first."

The level of play among all the bridge players in this area is quite high, a fact that in part may be the result of the notorious leisure time many government jobs provide.

"For one thing, let's face it, people who work for the government have time to play, time to hone their games," says Mike Carroad, president of the WBL and a civilian employe of Army Intelligence.

At most Washington tournaments, the men's and women's pairs, beginning at 1:30 or 2 p.m. on Fridays, are among the best-attended events. They are known among local players as the "Sick Leave Pairs" in honor of all the entrants who develop sudden ailments at their desks an hour before game time.

Ten of the top 137 master-point holders in the world live here, including Richard "Rare Rick" Henderson, an accountant, who holds 10,144 master points -- the highest total in this area and the 24th highest total in bridge history.

Winning an average club game is worth only a fraction of one master point. To make life master requires 300 points, which can take more than 100,000 hours to accumulate. More than 420 life masters live in the Washington area.

Last fall, at the 10-day national championships in Lancaster, Pa., Washington area players either won or placed second in 37 of the 68 events. In 12 of the 68 events, Washington players came in both first and second. Meanwhile, two local experts, Ed Manfield and Kit Woolsey, were last year's winners of the most lucrative bridge event in the world: the Cavendish Invitational Pairs.

Why such bridge talent here?

"Bright people have always come to Washington to seek employment, and bright people play bright bridge," says Jim Wood, editor of the Washington Bridge Leage Bulletin. In addition, the wide availability of WATS lines in offices allows Washington's top players to feed their habits by talking bridge, sometimes for hours at a stretch, with players around the country.

The game is such an obsession in some quarters that it has given rise to a new species of Washington social event, the "You Hold' party." The name refers to the traditional way one player begins giving a bidding problem to another: "You hold the ace-king of spades. . . ."

The game even has invaded the seemingly innocent world of telephone numbers. When a Washington tournament regular moved to Pennsylvania last year, he asked for a new phone number whose last four digits were 7689. That can also be written 7NTX -- the bridge player's shorthand for seven no-trump doubled.

For bridge obsession in Washington, however, Glenn Lublin stands alone.

A 28-year-old University of Maryland dropout, Lublin has played bridge most of the day, every day, for the last 11 years. He is a "house player" at the Dupont Circle Club, and has hired himself out as a partner for money at tournaments around the East Coast for the last five years. With 4,580 master points, he ranks 11th among area players. "I feel I was born to play bridge," says Lublin.

Lublin is as well known for his antics as for his bridge skill.

He is a local legend for his "wolf call" -- a loud, derisive roar uttered whenever he does something right at the table, or an opponent does something wrong. And a regular tournament laugh-getter is "Lublin's Bridge Movies" at the end of a session -- an account of every card he just played and every bid he just made, all told at such speed that the syllables run together.

Here is a fellow who loves everything about the game of bridge, and yet talks about getting out. The income is too uncertain, says Lublin, and the competition is not what it used to be.

"Many of the top players don't play in local tournaments any more," he says. "In the old days, the competition was high-level. Now the top players are home watching movies on TV. I don't know why."

There is conflicting evidence as to whether bridge's popularity is suffering a slow decline here, as Lublin fears. His home club, the Dupont Circle, is down 200 members from 10 years ago and is the only club of its kind in town. But in New York, playing-for-pay clubs are thriving. There are at least 20 of them and the largest, the Cavendish, has 700 members and a waiting list.

Among the local play-for-fun clubs, Millard's Bridge Studio in Silver Spring and the Bridge Centre of Northern Virginia in Crystal City are prospering, each running between 12 and 14 games per week. But six clubs have died in the last five years, and several others appear to be sputtering.

As for the contract bridge leagues, WBL officials say that membership has increased steadily for the last 13 years. The local novice program of lessons and supervised play is considered one of the best in the country, and the professional, middle-class nature of Washington makes officials optimistic that the game will never falter here.