For most Utahns, the thought of thousands of people huddled around card tables conjures up visions of high stakes gambling in Las Vegas or Atlantic City. But a quick trip to the Salt Palace would reveal a picture more reminiscent of a family reunion than a casino or gambling parlor.

Some 6,000 to 8,000 card-laying contract bridge enthusiasts have settled into the Salt Palace exhibition hall for 10 days of championship play as seven Summer North American Bridge Championship titles are decided. The event is sponsored by the American Contract Bridge League.And while those attending the events are counting tricks and slams and other bridge moves, local merchants are counting dollars - between 8 million and 10 million of the much coveted greenback - if tournament officials' estimates are correct. Hotel rooms and dinner reservations in the downtown area are at a premium, a thought that tickles the fancy of local merchants.

Those attending the meet say the championships are as much a social event as they are a sporting contest. While championships will be decided, those in town specifically to win are in a minority. By and large, the bridge enthusiasts are gathered to play on a social level with the intent of renewing acquaintances and sharpening their skill.

"It's the kind of thing that rolls on its own inertia," says Philadelphia's Phil Brady. "There is a lot of vacation atmosphere here. The time spent between sessions is just as important as the play itself."

Brady, who is considered a semiprofessional, noted there are some in attendance that earn a living playing bridge. But since there is no prize money involved, professionals earn money by providing their skills to partners who are willing to pay for that expertise.

"It's a good way for someone who wants to improve their play to learn," said Brady, who earns his living primarily as a computer programmer. "For many, playing as a pro is a way of covering the cost of being here and providing enough excuse for ourselves to escape from real life and come here."

A good pro can net about $30,000 yearly for 35 to 40 weeks of spending time at three-day and six-day events. Three times a year, the ACBL sponsors 10-day championship events.

Those interested in getting a first-hand look at the world of bridge can find it all at the Salt Palace through Aug. 7. In addition to being able to observe the players without charge, free lessons are also available, and it is not uncommon for side games (spontaneous games not related to the tournament play) to spring up involving those not in the tournament itself.