Whenever cultured people get together over a spot of sherry and begin to speculate in firm but gentle syllables on the outcome of what they casually refer to as "The Game," you can be sure they are not talking about Texas vs. Oklahoma or Army vs. Navy or Notre Dame vs. Anybody.

Those understated, tweedy tones are a dead giveaway. The clicking of the Waterford crystal indicates conversation about the only football contest in the country worth mentioning in polite society: Harvard vs. Yale. (This year's contest takes place Saturday before 67,000 raccoon-coated partisans in Yale Bowl.)

The Game! A few euphoric souls still refer dramatically to the annual Ivy League gridiron rivalry in heavy, romantic terms. It is, they say, tossing a cape over the shoulder, a modern-day duel between Spanish noblemen with a gentleman's honor at stake. Like, swaaak! a kid glove smarting the cheek.

Well, they're close. But they haven't got it quite right.

What The Game has evolved to - much as both institutions hate to admit it - is a public display of wrist-wrestling between the Hertz and the Avis of Higher Education. The loser gets to try harder to appease disgruntled alumni for the coming year.

"You could lose all your games and beat Harvard and it was a successful season, " affirmed former Yale quarterback Brian Dowling (class of '69), freshly cut from the Washington Redskins in his ninth year as a sometime pro.

"Coming from Cleveland and the Midwest, I just wanted to win every game. I didn't give any special attention to The Game," he said with the familiar, single-minded focus on football that inspired "B.D.," Gerry Trudeau's (class of '70) Pultizer Prize-winning cartoon character in "Doonesbury."

In 1966, his sophomore year, an injured and disconsolate Dowling watched from the stands in the Yale Bowl while his team played in The Game. All he remembers is that it was cold and windy and the game was "a little boring." Harvard won.

Dowling admits in chagrined tones that his 1967 Yale victory over Harvard was "anticimatic because we had clinched the Ivy League championship the week before. Besides, I didn't have a particularly good game. We were lucky to win."

He had scrambled around in the first half and lofted a pass to Calvin Hill, now a Washington Redskin. Dowling also tossed a 60-yard bomb to keep Yale just ahead of a rallying Harvard, which lost the game by fumbling on the Yale 10 as the gun sounded.

Aaaaah. Cliffhangers all, with the kind of mean thrills that make alumni pickets all the deeper. That Dowling-led Yale victory gave way to 1968 and what has come to be called not The Game but That Game.

A Boston newspaper heralded the '68 Harvard rally with the triumphant news: "HARVARD BEATS YALE, 29-29."

"The only thing that kept Yale from scoring 40 or 50 points in '68," a disgruntled Dowling now recalls with Eli elan, "was fumbling six times. Then they put on this fierce rally and ended up scoring 16 points in 42 seconds, and they tied us.

"I wanted to get into the game as a defensive back, partly because I was a pretty good athlete and I knew they were picking on our back, Don Martin. I wanted to go in for him because I felt I knew more of what was going on and that was partly because I had played defense in high school, St. Ignatius in Cleveland.

"Thecoach (Carm Cozza) wouldn't send me in because he said it would be pretty much of a downer in morale for the team. And I felt really frustrated because I thought I could have helped out.

"I knew we wouldn't lose the game, being eight points ahead," Dowling said in his second-by-second replay as he recalled the Harvard points mounting up on his lead. "But it's funny the way things work out.

"I had my best day as an undergraduate - 13 of 20 passes with two touchdowns, two touchdowns running, a two-point conversion running, and I held the ball on the other three extra points.

"I was in on all the scoring," he said, sounding strangely dissatisfied. "But it was the closest I came to any loss in college. In fact, it was my only loss, that 29-29 tie game."

That, folks sums up the importance of The Game to those from Harvard and those from Yale.