The great high-rolling gamblers in this town, men who spent their lives on the road and got their education in the school of hard knocks, might have snickered at Chip Reese's credentials when he sat down at a poker table with them for the first time. They surely would have laid long odds against the possibility that the pudgy, blond Ivy Leaguer would one day be widely regarded as the best seven-card-stud player in the world.

Reese had been a high school debating champion in Dayton, Ohio, and had gone to Dartmouth, intending to become a lawyer. There he discovered his true talent. At his fraternity house he played such formidable poker that he won all his classmates' money and had them running errands and fetching pizzas for him on command. When he graduated in 1973 they dedicated the David E. Reese Memorial Poker Room to him.

Reese came to Las Vegas with $400, intending to stay a weekend, and never left. He doubled his capital on his first day in town and gradually built up his bankroll to $20,000 by playing in moderate-stakes games. One night at the Flamingo Hotel he was watching a group of legendary gamblers, including John Moss and Doyle Brunson, playing hi-lo seven card stud. This was the game that Reese and a whole generation of undergraduates had grown up with, and it seemed to him that these old-timers reared on traditional poker games had not mastered its nuances. Finally he had the temerity to conclude: "These guys can't play at all."

Reese steeled his nerve, decided to risk half of his bankroll and sat down with the giants of poker. On the first deal one of his opponents pulled a six-four-three-two-ace, a near-perfect low, and another held a high flush. Reese drew a five-four-three-two-ace straight flush, the ultimate hand in hi-lo. He won $19,000 with it, and when the game was over he left the table with a $66,000 profit. That was the start of what would be one of Las Vegas' most spectacular success stories.

He had the ability; the old-timers saw that quickly, but they weren't about to hand Reese any trophies. An up-and-coming gambler in this town is a Ulysses sailing past the Sirens, and he must do the equivalent of lashing himself to the mast to avoid temptation. Cocaine is the worst wrecker of promising card players here, but Vegas offers enough forms of destruction to suit anyone's taste.

"When you first come here and start to win," Reese said, "all the broads are after you and you're kind of in the role of a tourist. I messed around with hundreds of broads, partied all the time, stayed out drinking all night. But now that I've been here for awhile I've become much more domesticated. You've got to be serious.

"There's not much difference in ability between the top players in this town, and there are guys with 10 tons of ability who don't make it. It's a matter of consistency.If you have problems or you let something distract you, you can lose a million dollars in this town very fast."

That number was not hyperbolic; the stakes in Las Vegas stagger the imagination. When Reese played in a seven-handed draw-poker game at the Dunes Hotel on Saturday night, towers of pink $500 chips were stacked in front of every player and kibitzers estimated there was $260,000 on the table.

Moreover, it is easy to lose big money fast because the action here is virtually nonstop and the high rollers are constantly betting on any activity that demands skill and judgment. To be a Renaissance gambler is an esteemed virtue here.

Reese's specialty remains poker, but if an affluent challenger walks into the Dunes looking for a game of gin or backgammon with him, the $100 bills soon will be piled high on the table.He bets football, gambles on golf, even diets for high stakes. When he and Brunson decided they needed to lose weight, they bet $50,000 on who could diet more successfully. Reese promptly gained 17 pounds -- evidence of how much $50,000 means in this town.

To an outsider, the stakes at this level of gambling seem frightening, paralyzing, but Reese said, "I'm immune to it. When you play big you can't understand the value of money. I couldn't play if I had to think what $1,000 could buy every time I called a guy with an ace high in seven-card stud. Doyle Brunson once observed that I play $20 limit the same way I play $4,000 limit, and everybody here has that quality."

One night Reese was playing Kansas City lo-ball, a version of draw poker in which the perfect hand is seven-five-four-three-two. Reese had an eight-five-four-two, a one-card pull to an excellent hand, and he and another player put $11,000 into the pot before the draw. Each took one card. Reese pulled another eight, giving himself a high pair -- an utterly worthless hand.

His opponent bet $21,000. Reese didn't hesitate. He pushed $64,000 into the pot. The other player stared at his hand, pondered -- and folded.

"I just didn't feel that he had that good a hand," Reese said.

The ability to make such subtle decisions is what distinguishes all good poker players. The ability to make them with $100,000 on the table is what creates legends in Las Vegas.