As three lawyers for Maryland Live casino entered a federal courtroom Friday morning, it seemed that a list containing information on hundreds of high rollers was on the line, a trove they suspected had been taken by a former employee who had left for a competitor.
But as the morning wore on, documents established that the lawyers' problem was considerably smaller. Helena Wong, a former host at Maryland Live, had emailed just 19 elite players.
And Wong, who now works at Baltimore's Horseshoe casino, testified that she had gathered the names gradually in the course of her job and had not pulled off a grand heist before leaving.
"I absolutely am not a thief," Wong said.
Wong had kept a "book" — a list of information about players that casino hosts typically maintain to help them serve their regulars — and said she thought nothing of using that information to contact clients about the opening of the Horseshoe this week.
Whether that book was hers to use as she liked or was confidential information controlled by Maryland Live is now something that the court will have to decide at a later date.
Among the 19 contacted was Philip DePalo, a 32-year-old who as a regular poker player has great stature at the casinos where he antes up. At Maryland Live, he was a Black Card holder, the second-highest group of players.
On receiving the email he did two things. First, he forwarded it immediately to Maryland Live, deeming it an "unprofessional" attempt to win his business. Second, he decided to see what Wong could give him at Horseshoe.
"I'm not an idiot," DePalo said in an interview. "I'm here for me."
DePalo ended up going to a preview night at Horseshoe, attended its grand opening and started the process to have his VIP status with the new casino bumped up to the level he held at Maryland Live.
But behind the scenes, his actions prompted Maryland Live to rush to court just days before Horseshoe was scheduled to open and seek an injunction stopping Wong from using the information.
Even after it emerged that her recruitment efforts were on a much smaller scale than Maryland Live's lawyers feared, Judge Marvin J. Garbis said they had not overreacted.
"They didn't know it was 19 names," he said. "They absolutely did the right thing by rushing in."
The tensions leading up to Friday's hearing had been building for months, according to court testimony, as Maryland Live prepared to deal with a major new competitor just 12 miles away.
Players like DePalo are valuable to casinos — a small number of high-spending gamblers can generate 80 percent of a venue's revenue — and a senior marketing executive at Maryland Live testified that the value of the entire 1,000-player list was somewhere in the hundreds of millions of dollars.
Howard Weinstein, Maryland Live's general counsel, explained from the stand that as the opening of Horseshoe approached, the Anne Arundel casino sought to get its hosts to sign noncompete contracts so they couldn't get jobs at the new venue and take their customers with them.
Wong said she was among those presented with the contract, but she dragged her feet over signing it. As she weighed her options, Wong testified, the atmosphere at Maryland Live became increasingly hostile.
"We certainly communicated to Ms. Wong and others that [signing the noncompete] was a condition of employment," Weinstein said.
But Wong said the language from her immediate bosses was considerably sharper and she decided to leave.
"I got tired of getting harassed, and I resigned," she said.
Wong landed a job at Horseshoe and took her book.
"When you get hired, the first thing they ask is, 'Do you have a book?'" she said.
So when other hosts at Horseshoe were trying to drum up business in the last few days before opening night, Wong said she thought nothing of dashing off an email to a few players she knew, asking them to come play.
After almost a full day of testimony, Garbis issued a temporary ruling that neither Wong nor anyone else at Horseshoe should use her list to contact the 19 people. But beyond that, he said, Horseshoe was free to continue to advertise as it pleases.
"If they want to put a billboard up outside saying, 'Welcome former Maryland Live customers,' they can do so," he said.