He was a guy named Steve I had met the previous day, and he said he had a friend named Phil. A real good bridge player. Runs a bridge club in Phoenix. Looking for a partner.Was I interested in playing with him?

Truly, I wasn't. I had come to Albuquerque, N.M., as a newspaper reporter, not a bridge player, and this was my last day to interview players at the Navajo Trail regional tournament for a series on the game. I still had three people on my most-see list. I was sleepy. I had eaten an enchilada the night before that wasn't dying without a fight. And back in Washington, I could play bridge any time.

So, of course, I said yes.

Ten hours and 52 hands later, I had lived the bridge player's fantasy-of-fantasies.

I and a total stranger named Phil Guptill had won the 1981 Super Open Pairs championship of the Southwest. The immediate results to Phil and me were: 41.6 master points apiece. The average bridge player in the U.S. has only two of these mythical measures of bridge accomplishment. The average member of the American Contract Bridge League has 20. And that's for a lifetime, not one snowy Saturday.

Glossy photos of us in the national bridge magazine.

Automatic invitations to the Blue Ribbon Pairs, the bridge world's annual tournament of champions.

Best of all: the right to let fly with a mutual war whoop in the Albuquerque Convention Center -- and have nearly 1,000 fellow bridge players understand.

The odds against two strangers getting together 15 minutes before a major bridge event and winning it are incalculable. Not only were there 353 other pairs in the Super Open field, but many of them had "grooved" their partnerships through years of practice. Besides, eight of our opponents were world-class stars.

Paul Soloway of Bothell, Wash., and Malcolm Brachman of Dallas were world champions in 1979 (although Brachman, as we noted in an earlier story, in effect bought his way to that championship). Bobby Wolff of Dallas was a three-time world champ. Ron Andersen of New York had won 2,725 master points last year alone. Phil and I hadn't won that many between us in our lives.

But just as there can be radar between male and female on a first date, so Phil and I immediately saw eye-to-eye on bridge.

We sat over in the corner of the smoke-filled Convention Center exhibit hall at a folding table, filling out the card on which each pair must list its special bidding agreements.

To a casual player, or a nonplayer, our conversation would have sounded like Martian. But "bridges" understand each other, so Phil, scribbling furiously, didn't once look up in puzzlement as I ticked off the special bids I wanted to play: Texas Transfers, Preemptive Major Suit Reraises, Flannery Two-Diamond Bids, Maximal Doubles -- and, in honor of Albuquerque, Western Cue Bids.

On of the first hand, I bid a small slam in diamonds when I probably shouldn't have -- and certainly wouldn't have with any regular partner.

Making a small slam means taking 12 of the 13 right away by leading spades. They led diamonds.

Then I overcame a very unfavorable lie of the opponents' cards with an expert maneuver called an "end play."

Dummy had the 8 of hearts left, I had the ace, the 10 and the 4, and the opponent on my left and the jack, the 9 and the 3 (all the other hearts had been played). I led the 8, and played my 4, allowing my opponent to win with the 9. Now she was "cooked."

If she returned the jack, I'd score my ace and my 4 would become the highest remaining unplayed heart. If she played the 3 instead, my 4 would win the trick, and I'd still have the ace left for the next trick.

Six diamonds bid, six diamonds made. "I think we're going to be all right," said Phil.

Perfect was more like it. We defeated three no-trump by a trick, five hearts doubled by a trick, then three clubs by four tricks. Four top scores on the first four hands.

"Stop the event!" said I.

"Forty-eight hands to go," said Phil, tournament-wise.

Sure enough, we bombed on the very next one.

My and was spadeA972/heartKQ53/diamondKQ107/clubA. I bid one diamond. My left-hand opponent said two clubs. Phil bid two diamonds. That meant he had a poor hand with a few diamonds, and he didn't have a good five-card heart or spade suit, or he would have bid it.

After my right-hand opponent bid two spades, I tried three clubs -- "cue-bidding" one of the opponents' suits to announce to Phil that I had more than a minimum hand. He now bid three hearts. And here, for the first time, our inexperience as partners snagged me.

Could he really have good hearts? Probably not, I decided. More likely, he thought we had agreed on diamonds as our trump suit, and was just showing me that he held the ace of hearts. So I shrugged and bid five diamonds -- only to hear my left-hand opponent say "double" in a rather greedy tone of voice.

"Double" in bridge means "I doubt it." It also means that if the declarer (me, in this case) fails to make his contract, every trick by which he fails doubles in value.

This opponent's doubts were justified. He made two trumps and his partner took a spade to defeat me by one trick. But Phil's hand was spade86/heart-AJ102/diamond8543/ club752. We could have made game in hearts if I had believed that his three-heart bid showed a heart suit.

Still, the rest of the afternoon session was sunny. At the dinner break, we added up our score: 200, or second in the huge field.We pretended we weren't excited -- but neither of us ordered beer with our Mexican combination plates.

Quickly, in the evening, came the drought. Down we went in two overly ambitious game contracts. Phil decided to bid five diamonds when the opponents had settled on four hearts, and we were crunched for 800 points. Twice we let the opponents bid and make two hearts when we could have bid and made three clubs.

"We're heading for the back of the bus," I pointed out.

"Hang in there," said Phil. "Ten hands to go."

There are two ways to get a good score on a tournament bridge hand.You can do something right, or your opponents can do something wrong. On the next three hands, the opponents fell to the occasion.

Down went a lady from San Angelo, Tex., in three no-trump, by three tricks. Down she went on the next hand, too -- in a grand slam in hearts. Then, dangerously, I bid three diamonds in a competitive auction. A guy from Las Vegas, of all places, "doubted" me by doubling, but I timed the play just right to make the nine tricks that my three diamond bid had said I could take.

Then came a hand where Las Vegas could have made a grand slam (all 13 tricks) in diamonds, hearts or no-trump. He could have bid the higher-scoring no-trump slam, "fixing" us with a miserable score we couldn't have done anything about. But he went down the middle, choosing hearts, so we were lucky enough to get an average score.

I sensed that we were back in the hunt when I picked up this hand next: spadeAKQJ109832/heart10/diamondA10/club4.

A rock crusher, but also just the sort of hand where you need your partner's help. And my partner was a stranger. How could E make him realize that all I needed in his hand to make a small slam in spades was the king of diamonds and either the ace of hearts or the ace of clubs? There was no easy way, I decided. So I opened the bidding with four spades.

"Five clubs," said the woman from Tuscon.

"Double," said Phil, "doubling" her.

"Pass," said the woman from Scottsdale.

And I was facing the kind of decision that wins or loses bridge tournaments.

It might be right to pass and accept Phil's "doubts," for the opponents' five-club contract could have been destined for what bridge players call a "telephone number" -- a defeat of more than 1,000 points.

On the other hand, it might be right to overrule Phil's double by bidding five spades, gambling that making that contract -- if indeed we could -- would score more. With absolutely noting to guide me, I rolled the mental dice and bid five spades.

Right! As Phil put down his dummy, I saw the king of diamonds, meaning that I could not be defeated in my five-spade contract. But he didn't have either of the missing aces, so we couldn't have made six or seven spades if we had bid them. Most important, we would have defeated the opponents only two tricks (300 points) in five clubs.So making five spades (450 points) was the optimal result.

On went the magic: The opponents went down in a slam on the 49th hand of the day. They went down in two no-trump on the 50th. On no. 51, they made only three no-trump when they could have made four. On the last hand, they failed to bid a slam in clubs.

We added our score feverishly: 181 for the evening session, 381 for the day. It felt like a winner. An hour later, after all the scores were totaled, it was -- by the narrow margin of 3 1/2 points.

The moral of the story: we were occasionally good, and often lucky. That is a winning bridge recipe, strangers or not. Tournament Play Is All Work

The cards are the same, the language of bidding is the same and most of the rules are the same. But there end the similarities between tournament bridge and the deal-them-out-around-the-kitchen-table version.

The big difference is scoring.

"Home bridge" scoring is absolute.If you bid and make four spades, you get 420 or 620 points, dedpending on whether you've already made a game or not. Period. Please pass the potato chips.

But tournament scoring is relative.

It every tournament, you will sit either East-West or North-South. Let's say you're assigned East-West table 4, in a 13-table game. You will spend the entire session playing against North-South pairs. But your score on each hand will be determined by how well your fellow East-West pairs do when they hold the same cards.

For example, let's say you bid and make four spades on the first hand. You get the same "raw score" of 420 points you'd get in your kitchen. But your true score on the hand will depend on how many East-Wests did better when they held the same cards, and how many did worse. That comparison doesn't take place until the end of the session.

If every other East-West pair bid four spades and failed to make it, you have the best relative score on the hand -- and a "match point" score of 12, the highest you can get.

But if every otehr East-West pair bid four spades and made five, they all have raw scores of 450. That means that your raw score of 420 is the lowest relative socre -- and your "match point" score on the hand is zero, the lowest possible.

Your score for a session is thus the total of your match points.

The mechanics and terms of tournament bridge are another world to the home player too.

In tournaments, cards arenht played by being tosed into a heap in the middle of the table. Each player simply faces the card he wants to play to each trick in front of him.

When a hand is over, each player can thus retrieve the exact 13 cards he held when it started. The four hands are stuffed back into slots in a flat tray caled a "board," which is then passed to the next table, where two new pairs play exactly the same cards on the next round. Tournament bridge is for the serious competitor, and many "home bridge" habits -- talking during a hand, asking to see the previous trick after it's finished, asking partner what his last bid means -- are strictly forbidden.

Because evry trick is critical, tournament bridge produces an atmosphere of intense concentration, and eerie quiet.

Walk into a room where a tournament is being played, and you will see hundreds of people sitting at cheap folding tables in a smoky room -- not looking up, not looking around, not saying hello, not doing anything but peering into their hands.

The only sounds will be cards being dropped on tables, and muffled voices saying "two clubs" or "pass." And the only reward for hours of grueling combat will be master points, which are imaginary. Tournament bridge in the United States is never played for money.

What's the satisfaction? "Winning," says Edgar Kaplan, editor of The Bridge World magazine. "Winning can make up for a lot of smoky rooms."