CHARLIE MILLER was kind enough to strap on his back brace before he stepped up to the table, the same as he does when he's facing a tough opponent. And somebody in the crowd was nice enough to say "Good contest" as Miller steadily, almost gently, forced down his opponent's wrist to the pin that put him out of the World Winter Arm Wrestling Tournament in Arlington Sunday.

Miller, a horse trainer from Charles Town, W. Va., is not very big, doesn't look all that strong, and is pretty old as athletes go. The novice he handled so easily and perhaps a 30-pound advantage, having been moved down from heavyweight to middleweight class by tournament sponsor Pat Carrigan because, "If you get your arm broken you might type too slow and miss you deadline."

The session was the first of three preliminary rounds, open to all, with no fees and no cash prizes unless you make side bets. All wrestling, is righthanded because that's the way it goes in this world.

The second round begins at 2 p.m. Sunday - or as soon thereafter as the theorists and nitpickers quit arguing over rules and equipment - at Carrigan's sickly-green go-go pub at 1713 Wilson Boulevard. The third round will be March 6, and preliminary winters in the five weight classes will square up for the Grand Championship on March 13, at which time there will also be a contest for women.

"We were going to have four rounds for the ladies too," Carrigan said, "but the fact is there aren't that many women who are willing to wrestle in public.

Survivors of the double-elimination contest will win trophies proclaiming them world champions, there being no international (or national, for that matter) sanctioning body. A man with a golden arm and enough time and money to travel can be the world champion of Arlington, Scranton, Pa. Petaluma, Calif, and divers other places.

"There are some very serious competitors in this sport who are hoping to get it accepted as an Olympic event," Carrigan said. "That's why we only award trophies, to protect their amateur status.

While it does not seem likely that arm-wresting will get anything but giggles from the International Olympic Committee in the foreseeable future, the fine art of pinning a man's wrist has gone a quantum jump beyond the macho marathons Hemingway used to incite at La Floridita bar in Havana.

Take Harvey Frank, for instance (an awful lot of people have tried). Frank, 20, a vending machine repairman from Newport News, Va., is a slender, rangy, almost delicate-looking 165-pound middleweight who regularly puts down massively muscled opponents. He pinned enough of them last year to carry off the $10,000 top prize at the Professional World Championship (Los Angeles version).

"It's about 50 per cent technique and 60 per cent psych and maybe a little muscle," Frank said between rounds Sunday. "I tell myself I'm going to beat this guy, I'm going to win , and then I step up there and do it."

He sures does. The elapsed time in most of Frank's bouts was something under a second, but the squareups (the men must face each other with shoulders parallel) went on interminably. He would dawdle on his approach to the table, a chest-high apparatus designed to equalize contestants as much as possible; he would look at the floor, look at the ceiling, go to the resin bag, test his foot placement, mutter to himself hyperventilate, test his grip on the brace pipe, shuffle his feet and generally carry on like a marine about to hit the beach.

His opponents meanwhile, already softened up by Frank's reputation and perhaps by prior experience, mostly would stand there and sweat, waiting to "lock up", as the process of actually coming to grips is termed.

The largest contingent Sunday was from the Norfolk area, where shipbuilders and longshoremen apparently while away spare time dislocating each other's elbows. To have men who look like they stepped out of the cast On the Waterfront crowding around and urging the fellow across the table to "Pluck this turkey" does little for the turkey's pluck.

The "go" signal is not given by the referee until both men are satisfied with the starting position and Frank is never satisfied. "He's not showing me any knuckle," he will say, for, "He's hammering me." It is in fact a contest of wills as much as physical strength, and Frank will keep on until his adversary not only is thoroughy rattled that has accepted an inferior position.

"He's got me right from the start one of Frank's victims mourned. "He's so tense it outrageous."

The importance of such psyching was demonstrated when Frank was beaten in the second round by Rick Miller, Charlie's son, who never before had pinned Frank but summoned up from somewhere enough brass to outcarp him and get Frank to agree to go when Miller had the superior position. The mental effort apparently drained Miller and Frank put him away handily in their third and decisive squareup.

Between bouts contestants retired to table to swig milk, Coke, Sioux Bee honey or special energy boosters secreted in brown paper bags. Their conversation was laced with the arcana of the sport, which include moves such as the "rollover," the "rollunder" and the killer "rollout", which when properly executed costs you victim a foul and possibly a finger.

"You don't see the really good ones drinking beer very often," said Susie Carrington, who had given up trying to squeeze through the spectators and was passing bottles of beer over their heads. "They're very serious about their training and diet."

"Everything I do is related to arm wrestling," concurred Jerry Boyd, 32, a Bonnie bread truck driver and fourtime West Virginia champion in the superheavyweight division.

"I've been at it 12 years, and never a day goes by when I don't do 400 pushups, you know, sets of 50. I drop down right in the street beside the truck, anywhere I might happen to be." (It is safe to assume that few onlookers make bold to remark on such behavior, since Boyd is only slightly smaller than his bread truck.)

"Then at home I'll do bench presses, 400 pounds, three sets times five reps (repetitions). And I've got a pulley machine mounted on a table to pump against. That helps you get the muscles working together the way they do when you're competing."

When the day was over the winners were, in ascending weight classes: George Kent, 32, a construction foreman from Newport News; Frank; Steve Stanaway, a pipefitter with the Newport News Shipbuilding & Drydock Co.; Peter Wrenn, a Washington are architect; and Boyd.

"Now that you've seen how it goes come on back next Sunday and give it another try," Carrigan said.

The hell with that. This story was typed lefthanded.