You don't have to know cards to know Johnny Chan, two-time winner of the World Series of Poker.
That was him with Matt Damon in the 1998 movie "Rounders." The icily confident Chan had a cameo as a star gambler; beating him is Damon's moment of glory.
Now the Chinese-born, Las Vegas-bred Chan is teaming up with a casino school in Buffalo to make a score in the global casino business -- if they can get the idea past skeptical regulators.
Chan's company has licensed the Casino Career Training Center in Buffalo to operate an Internet school for dealers called Johnny Chan University. The backers call the idea a first for online education.
"We spent some time at their office in Buffalo (and) looked at the online content," said Nick Koustas, manager of Chan Poker. "We were pretty impressed with their content and ability."
Like U.S. states, nations across Asia are racing to set up legal casinos in order to draw high-rollers and their thick wads of cash. The boom means tens of thousands of dealers will be hired in coming years, the school's backers say.
Who will train them?
"This Internet thing is going to explode," said Steven DePutter, head of the Buffalo casino school. "I want to train all of Asia -- the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan . . ." That's in addition to the fast-growing Chinese gambling zone in Macau, plus the expanding casino industry in the U.S.
The casino school will also put Chan's name on its real-world sites in Buffalo and Olean, with plans to open two more offices in Las Vegas and in Macau. But it is the online business that holds out the promise of reaching the most students, DePutter said.
Chan's reputation and ethnic background, plus some translation help from language students, position the school's curriculum for a global market, he figures. Chan himself will devote one hour a month to the business.
DePutter plans a 100-hour online class, with exams given via Web cams in students' homes. He hasn't worked out the tuition, but figures it will be less than the $1,200 tab for the real-world class; maybe about half.
But getting a required license from the state Education Department could be a problem for the first-of-its-kind school. Distance-learning techniques usually aren't suited for hands-on skills like card dealing, an official said.
"It's an interesting idea," said Thomas Reimer, head of curriculum for the state Eduction Department's trade school division. "But because it involves manual skills and dexterity, I have great reservations."
The state agency has hired a former dealer to review the school's proposal. The school is refining the program -- such as how Web cams will be used -- with the state's input before submitting a formal application, Reimer said.
"The crucial aspect is, can the institution really teach the hand-work through the Internet," Reimer said.
With its collection of used card tables in the old Pierce Arrow building in North Buffalo, the Casino Career Training Center seems far removed from the glitz of Vegas -- or even Niagara Falls.
The school, and a competing public-sector one at Niagara County Community College, has trained many of the dealers now working in Niagara Falls, DePutter said, with classes in poker and other games. The sister location in Olean trains dealers primarily for the Seneca Allegany Casino in Salamanca.
On one recent evening, a grad named Dave dropped in at the Pierce Arrow office to practice his card handling. He hasn't been called by the casinos yet, but that doesn't keep him from working.
He was hired for a private gambling cruise recently, he said, dealing the cards each night after the boat left its dock in Myrtle Beach and sailed past the U.S. territorial limit.
>Many languages used
In the poker class, instructor Nick Ciavarella, an experienced dealer, fanned the cards expertly over the green felt table. His hands do the same trick on instruction videos that were shot for the online class. But his head is left out of the frame, so that voice instructions in different languages can be easily dubbed in, DePutter explained.
The casino school was founded in 1999 by Amherst resident Louis Giambrone, an entrepreneur with a checkered history. In 1988, federal cocaine distribution charges against him were dropped when a key witness refused to testify, court records show.
DePutter said he bought the Casino Career Training Center from his friend Giambrone in 2003, after the Federal Trade Commission shut down another Giambrone business in the Pierce Arrow building.
The FTC called Giambrone's First Capital Consumer Membership Services a telemarketing scam that sold bogus insurance to credit card holders. He and a partner paid a fine of $387,000.
County records show that Giambrone was removed from the casino school's ownership record in 2003. But his name continues to surface in connection with the business.
Giambrone was among a group from Buffalo who met with Chan's business partners in Las Vegas to launch the idea for Johnny Chan University, Koustas of Chan Poker said.
And in February, the landlord for the casino school's new office near downtown Buffalo said in an interview that Giambrone had paid a deposit for the site. Developer Ralph C. Lorigo identified Giambrone as the owner of the school -- a statement he now says was mistaken.
Buffalo lawyer Brian Melber, who represents Giambrone and the casino school, confirmed that he got in touch with Lorigo to tell him that Giambrone doesn't own the school.
DePutter said that Giambrone is an old friend who sometimes handles a negotiation for the school, but is not an owner or employee.
Johnny Chan University was formed as a Delaware limited liability corporation on March 9, Delaware Department of State records show. DePutter said he and Kevin S. Upton, who handles the technology end of things, own the company.
Upton, whose background is in video messaging, was developing online gambling technology when the U.S. began cracking down more effectively on the industry by outlawing payments via credit card.
Now, online training represents an alternative application for his Web video system, he said. He is finishing a studio at an Internet hosting site in Amherst to conduct the school's online operations.
Like DePutter, Upton sees a big training opportunity in the casino boom that is sweeping the U.S. and Asia.
"Whether that's a good thing or a bad thing is not in my realm of decision making," he said.
>Teaching in cyberspace
Once all the instructional videos are shot, most teaching will happen in cyberspace, with students and instructors both working in their Web cam-equipped homes, Upton explained.
Students can send videos to instructors to illustrate a question about technique, he said, and instructors will issue grades based on video exams. Graduates will have a video resume to submit to employers that showcases their abilities.
In addition to obtaining a state license, the school faces the task of raising money. It will seek about $2.4 million in equity from private investors, DePutter said.
"In order for us to expand," he said, "it's going to take a great infusion of capital."