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Woman accused of stealing Maryland Live high-rollers list for rival casino

Trials and ArbitrationHarford Community College

In the casino industry, they are known as "whales." At Maryland Live, they are plied with personal parties, guaranteed seating at concerts, free tickets to sporting events and even quarterly car detailing.

Helena Wong, a former VIP host at the Hanover casino, specialized in catering to those high rollers. So when her former employer suspected she had copied a list of its 1,000 best customers before taking at job a dozen miles away at Horseshoe Casino Baltimore, Maryland Live sued.

As Horseshoe, Maryland's newest gambling venue, opens Tuesday, the federal case underscores what's expected to be a fierce competition for the big spenders who can account for up to 80 percent of a casino's revenue. The case also offers a behind-the-scenes glimpse at the way casinos woo those players, mining vast databases, identifying gamblers who may be persuaded to spend more, and using old fashioned-hospitality.

Attracting high-spending customers will be increasingly critical for casinos to survive and thrive as more enter the market, said James Karmel, a Maryland-based gambling industry analyst. Horseshoe is Maryland's fifth casino, and MGM Resorts expects to open a casino at National Harbor in Prince George's County in 2016.

Moreover, additional slot machines and card tables in the region won't necessarily create a new crop of the most lucrative customers, said Karmel, who is also a history professor at Harford Community College. That means the competition for their business will only intensify.

"The high rollers can generate a very high percentage of a casino's revenue," Karmel said. "Retaining high-spending players is going to be a big deal."

Horseshoe is not named as a party to the lawsuit, but Maryland Live calls the $442 million casino "its principal competitor." The rivalry extends in many directions.

The two have been competing for staff as Horseshoe sought to hire 1,700 employees at a time when Maryland Live was expanding. Last year Maryland Live opened a 52-table poker room, and Horseshoe announced it would host a stop on the World Series of Poker. And with Horseshoe set to have $500-a-spin slots, Maryland Live countered with a $1 million jackpot machine.

Casino gambling is big business — Maryland Live pulled in $58 million in revenue from slots and table games in July — and competition has reshaped the industry landscape. Atlantic City, for example, has suffered with some casinos closing as Maryland and Pennsylvania have opened casinos.

Maryland's three other casinos — Hollywood Casino Perryville, Casino at Ocean Downs in Berlin and the Rocky Gap Casino Resort in Cumberland — are smaller, each reporting about one-tenth of Maryland Live's monthly revenues in July.

A Horseshoe representative declined to comment on the lawsuit. Following two days of controlled demonstrations, the casino won state regulators' approval Monday to open as scheduled Tuesday night. Thousands, including local politicians and celebrities, are expected at the opening.

Wong, who lives in New Jersey, said she had not seen the lawsuit but denied any wrongdoing. She declined to comment further before speaking to her attorney.

Carmen E. Gonzales, a spokeswoman for Maryland Live, said the company filed the lawsuit after it received complaints from customers who had been solicited to come and play at Horseshoe. She declined to answer questions about the casino's efforts to land high rollers.

According to documents filed in federal court in Baltimore last week, Maryland Live uses a "highly confidential and proprietary system" to identify the best customers and give them free entertainment, meals, transport and gifts to keep them coming back. The casino divides its players into five ranks, and they climb the levels the more they wager.

The top two ranks are known as the Black Card and Chairman's Club, and they include about 1,000 players, according to the lawsuit. Reaching the highest ranks could require staking hundreds of thousands of dollars — or even millions — a year, according to rules governing the rewards programs.

Players at the lower levels get some fringe benefits — such as discounts on food — but the top two groups get the more extravagant perks.

They range from free valet parking to rounds of golf and a personal host. Members of the top rank get a special "Chairman's Club Exclusive Package" that includes an annual party and free sports and entertainment tickets.

Casinos such as Horseshoe and MGM also will benefit from their brand-name connections. Horseshoe, for instance, won't need to start from scratch in attracting loyal players because it can draw on the rewards program of its parent company, Caesars Entertainment.

Harrah's, which bought Caesars before adopting its name, pioneered the use of points schemes in the 1990s and early 2000s, which helped the company expand rapidly, according to Karmel. Now the company can identify players familiar with its brand and entice them to come and play in Baltimore.

Maryland Live alleged in the lawsuit that Wong stole the list of its high rollers and used it to recruit gamblers at her new job with Horseshoe, where she started working in July. Last week she sent a mass email to arrange for them to come and play with her new employer, according to the lawsuit.

"If any of you would like to visit the property or come for a night or two, please contact me ahead of time so that I can set it up for you," Wong wrote in an Aug. 20 email included in the court filings. "Look forward to seeing you all!!"

As a VIP host, Wong fulfilled a role that included customer service work and revenue generation.

In addition to providing the "highest quality service" so that gamblers have a "favorable gaming experience," hosts are expected to find ways to get customers to spend more, according to an online job posting for the position.

The industry covets workers like Wong, as they can bring along their favorite customers when they switch jobs. Amy J. Hudson, a consultant who helps casinos analyze their customer data, said that while customer lists have been stolen in some cases, often hosts are simply relying on rapport they have built with players to bring them along.

"You have to have a way with people, you have to have a certain amount of charisma," said Hudson. "You have to be able to talk with people from all walks of life."

The best hosts, Hudson said, also comb databases seeking so-called "players of interest," who might be on the cusp of becoming a high roller, and entice them to gamble more.

As the Maryland Live want ad put it, a host should "consistently develop qualified guests to move their play to higher denomination zones and monitor guest activity through use of on-line systems."

Maryland Live works to keep the exact details of the program secret, according to the lawsuit, restricting access to certain computers in its offices to authorized employees. As a host, Wong would have had access to the gambler lists, according to the lawsuit.

On Friday, a federal judge in Baltimore issued an emergency restraining order that requires Wong and anyone else to stop using allegedly stolen information and for her to return any records to Maryland Live. The judge set another hearing in the case for Friday.

The recipients of Wong's email were not disclosed, but Maryland Live alleges that she knew what she was doing was wrong because she sent a follow-up message the next day.

"PS….PLEASE DO NOT repeat or show this email to any of MD Live's personnel," she wrote, according to court filings. "This is a confidential email between us."

iduncan@baltsun.com

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Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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