When the black smoke started billowing through the MGM Grand Hotel, the reaction of most casino employes was instantaneous and automatic: Save the money!

As subsequent news reports would disclose, MGM had not done an inordinate amount of planning in the event of a fire. Nevertheless, in the midst of the chaos, the casino was moving most of its cash into a fireproof vault swiftly and efficiently.

In most parts of civilization, this might seem a grotesque perversion of values. In Las Vegas, it was perfectly natural. Scores of pop sociologists have scrutinized this city since mobster Bugsy Siegel built it into a gambling haven in the mid-1940s, but they can find no subtleties. There is only one value, one principle that governs life here.

"Money is absolutely the only thing that counts in this town," said Jack Binion, proprietor of the Horseshoe Club, which made headlines recently when a customer risked and won $777,000 on a single roll at the craps table.

"You might be smart, you might have a prestigious job, and that would get you respect anywhere else," Binion said. "But here it doesn't mean a damned thing. Last year there was a man here who was out on bail for being a narcotics dealer, and he was a huge player. He beat us for $1.9 million at craps and 21, and until he had to go to prison for 30 years he was the toast of the town."

Even a casual, nongambling visitor quickly perceives the cultural differences here. In Washington, the respected commodities are power, success and style; loutish tourists flaunting their money will never be fawned over at Joe and Mo's or the Palm. To a Washingtonian, the scene at the Ann-Margret show in the Caesars Palace nightclub seemed as foreign as a tribal rite in New Guinea.

In the crowd there were only a few people who could have passed for Capitol Hill hotshots, who might have been wearing $400 suits from Britches. They were all seated in Siberia. The people who were ushered into the prime banquettes could be loud, tacky, garish, polyestered. It didn't matter, for Las Vegas is the perfect capitalist democracy. A man with money can win instant respect. "Here," Binion said, "you are judged only on your recent past performances."

A New Yorker named Tony experienced both ends of the Vegas ethos on a trip here a few years ago. He found himself with a hot hand at a crap table and built his small stake up to $13,000. As his bankroll grew, the pit boss approached him and said, "Sir, I have taken the liberty of moving your belongings into a suite -- at the house's expense."

Tony went upstairs to inspect the suite and moments later heard a knock on the door. The most beautiful girl in the world entered the room pushing a little cart that bore a bottle of Dom Perignon. "You know," she said, "it would be a shame to drink champagne alone."

"Six days later," Tony remembered, "I dropped my last coin into a nickel slot machine and I didn't have a friend in the world. If I'd dropped dead nobody would have noticed."

The rises and falls of fortune here are often even more dramatic. One member of the local poker fraternity was playing in $6 limit games a year ago, built his bankroll up to $200,000 and started taking on the best players in the world for a $1,000 limit. Now he is broke again and borrowing money to build up a new stake.

High rollers win and lose millions here, and the flow of such mind-boggling sums of money distorts the whole social and economic structure of the community. One young man worked his way up to be the manager of a National Car Rental agency, a responsible position, and then quit when he got a job as a parking-lot attendant. The tip money gave him a 50 percent increase in salary, and considerations such as respectability were irrelevant. Solid middle-class citizenship doesn't count for much here. Nor does anything else but money -- not even death and disaster.

People across America who saw television reports of the MGM disaster might have assumed that this city was paralyzed by shock and horror. But on the afternoon of the fire, when the smell of smoke was still perceptible in the air, I walked into the Barbary Coast casino across the street from MGM, gambled for an hour, and didn't hear one mention of the fire. I visited another casino, and it was the same. Finally I walked to a bookmaking establishment where I first heard an allusion to the fire. "Because of today's tragedy," the public-address system said, "communications into Las Vegas have been disrupted and the race results from Bay Meadows will be delayed."

Las Vegas priorities have always been the same. Binion remembers a night when two men came into his casino and started to play for moderate stakes at the blackjack table. They were obviously buddies, swapping comments, passing money back and forth. As a deal began, one of the men grabbed at his chest, turned ashen, slipped off his chair and sank to his knees. While casino personnel summoned an ambulance, his buddy asked, "What do you want me to do?" p

"What's the dealer's up card?" the heart attack victim asked.

"Ten."

"Hit me," the man gasped.

The ambulance arrived and took him to the hospital. His friend never missed a hand.