Wood panelling covers the walls, the kind real estate agents would tell you to remove if you were selling the place. Overhead lighting. A surveillance camera is mounted in the corner. May or may not be recording. Looks dead.
The room with the wood paneling serves as the poker room at the Casino Gaming Institute, a Plesantville-based casino training school. The room is located seven miles from the heart of Atlantic City casino country, but it feels much farther.
* * *
The dealer slides the cards about the table ... puts them in a pile ... dispenses thems, one after another. The players organize their chips, making stacks of whites and reds. The chips have bulls engraved near the edges.
A woman with an orange jumpsuit and crinkly hair - looks like straw but probably much softer - reaches to pick up her cards, and her bracelets dangle over green felt. She's traveled here from Florida. Her former school wasn't meeting her needs.
A man with black moppy hair glances at his cards, processing odds. The Boston, Mass. resident hopes to work at Mohegan Sun in Connecticut some day.
A man from the Philadelphia suburbs folds his sunglasses and rests them on the table in front of him. He discusses exes and mortgage payments and other guy stuff with the man next to him. After he receives his certification, the man with the sunglasses wants to work in Pennsylvania. More demand. Closer to home.
The players and dealer, students at Casino Gaming Institute, are preparing to fill casino openings, wherever they are available. Today, many of those openings are located in places other than Atlantic City.
So the students come from Connecticut, Florida, Delaware and Philadelphia, anywhere really, learning how to deal in New Jersey, then using their new skills in the same casino markets that are chipping away Atlantic City's East Coast gambling stranglehold.
As the New Jersey resort's casino industry withers, with 1,000 more workers expected to be laid off this month, so, too, have training opportunities. A half-dozen regional casino school programs have folded in recent years. Only two remain - Casino Gaming Institute, and Atlantic Cape Community College's Casino Career Institute.
Now, both of those schools are surviving by branching into other states, looking for opportunity in new gambling markets, going wherever the action is. Away from New Jersey.
* * *
The New Jersey Casino Control Commission Web site offers a list of addresses and phone numbers to New Jersey's casino schools. The list was last updated in April 2008. That was 19 months ago, before the recession's full impact struck Atlantic City.
The CCC list features contact information for six schools. But try to call four of them and you will get busy signals or "the number you are trying to reach is no longer in service" recordings. Faced with a stacked economic deck and a soured job market, the schools have folded.
Casino Control Commission spokesman Daniel Heneghan wasn't aware that some of the local casino schools had closed.
"We don't regulate gaming schools anymore, and because of that, there's really not much we can say about them," Heneghan said.
Here's how much oversight exists for New Jersey's casino education centers: if you wanted to, you could open a training school tomorrow - with zero background, knowledge or industry experience.
* * *
Atlantic City's first casino license went to Resorts.
The second? Wasn't Golden Nugget. Not Bally's Atlantic City, either. Playboy Hotel and Casino? Nah.
New Jersey's second casino license went to Atlantic Community College, now known as Atlantic Cape Community College ... a mock casino, run by a college ... a way to prepare the regional work force for a new industry.
According to Carol Drea, director of the school's Casino Career Institute, this was the first gaming school in the nation affiliated with an accredited community college. In 30 years, the institute has prepared 50,000 workers for jobs in gaming halls, military bases and cruise ships all around the world - establishing itself as an industry standard.
That effort continued last week, when the school announced construction of a new center to train casino and hospitality workers in areas such as culinary arts, housekeeping services, bartending and hotel front desk staff.
The $10 million project, jointly funded by ACCC and the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority, should be ready for use by 2011. That's the expected completion date for Atlantic City's next, newest casino, Revel.
* * *
Casino trainers are looking to Revel as a new hope for Atlantic City. Plans for the beach-front megaresort were announced in 2006. Since then, thousands of Atlantic City's casino jobs have been lost.
The economy soured and gambling blossomed in Pennsylvania and New York -- leaving people less money to gamble, but more places to gamble it.
But Revel is coming to Atlantic City. Expected in 2011. Fingers are crossed.
* * *
While crane operators complete Revel's facade over Oriental Avenue, other casino markets are constructing and strengthening their own gambling industries.
"I receive calls every few days from other states in the process of setting up their own casino training," said ACCC's Drea.
Due to national and international demand, the college's training efforts stretch far beyond Atlantic City. The school serves as a consultant, licensing its curriculum and providing gaming-protection seminars to other states - as well as teaching people how to become instructors in casino markets as far away as China.
Despite CCI's international recognition, New Jersey's Casino Control Commission provides no oversight of the school.
In the state's early casino days, Atlantic City dealers were required to show proof of training or experience and had to be New Jersey residents for at least six months to receive a license.
In 1995, then-governor Christie Whitman signed a casino deregulation bill into law, eliminating the training requirement. So while the world looked to New Jersey - not to the wild, wily west of Las Vegas - for casino training, that training was no longer necessary for New Jersey's dealers.
So the state's training centers did the very thing Atlantic City has been criticized for being unable to do - they adjusted to the need and to changing market conditions, by helping other states, even those siphoning customers from southern New Jersey.
* * *
Gregory Fiore spends the afternoon bouncing between rooms at the Casino Gaming Institute. Upstairs. Downstairs. Slot-tech area in the back, with a looping soundtrack of coin noise playing in the background. He stands next to the craps table, then it's down to the office, answering a phone that won't stop ringing, showing a visitor a worn VHS of a Travel Channel broadcast that features institute teachers, and then that phone rings again, and it's someone trying to rope Fiore into a loan.
"Call me back after the new year," Fiore says, rolling his eyes.
He accomplishes all these tasks - moving between floors, overseeing the mock craps game, sitting in the office, answering phones, showing the VHS tape - with his purple silk patterned necktie undone, so the ends hang over his torso like honor cords on a graduation outfit. Maybe he was too busy to finish tying the tie, or the tie was slung too tightly around his neck, restricting his movement, and he had loosened the knot. For the Casino Gaming Institute's president and CEO, wasted time and restrictions are two things he's trying to avoid. About a month from now, during the first week of January, the institute will open its Delaware office.
"It's a market that's experiencing a lot of growth, and we've established a need for training in Delaware," Fiore said. "It's important for us to go where the need is."
Delaware and Pennsylvania expect to add table games early next year, so Fiore and co-worker Sonny Merlette, both Atlantic City casino veterans, shuttle between Pleasantville, Pennsylvania and Delaware. One school open, one school soon to follow, other schools in the planning stages. Prospective locations are marked by pushpins on a tri-state map in Fiore's office.
* * *
The students at Casino Gaming Institute are imagining their own pushpins and maps, with many of those maps showing states other than New Jersey.
So after her training ends, the woman with the bracelets and crinkly hair hopes to practice her trade a thousand miles from here. And the man from the Philly suburbs with the folded sunglasses waits with excitement for Pennsylvania lawmakers to pass table games legislation, the same law that's expected to chip away at Atlantic City's business.
And, after glancing at his cards and mentally processing odds, the guy from Boston with the moppy hair decides to go all-in. Why not? There's no money at stake.
Meanwhile, down a crowded Casino Gaming Institute stairway and seven miles east, Atlantic City's casino industry faces greater stakes, greater odds. Actual, tangible things such as visitors and workers and cash flow are dwindling. For three decades, resort-based trainers have taught the world how dispense, count and collect.
But how to deal? That lesson continues.