Emotions and opinion override factual takes in wake of WSOP massage therapist's firing

Haley Hintze Author Photo
Haley Hintze
Posted on: June 19, 2022 17:50 PDT

(Any opinions presented here are those of the author only and do not necessarily represent the opinions or viewpoints of the owners and publishers of Poker.org -- hh)

The heat on both sides in the wake of the firing of Professional Massage Inc. massage therapist Cintia Amstalden in the wake of an unfortunate 19-second "prank" video involving Frank "The Tank" Stepuchin in which Amstalden briefly massaged Stepuchin's nipples in a bad attempt at humor conjured up by Stepuchin. It didn't take long for the video to reach WSOP and PMI brass and that in turn meant the end of Amstalden's employment for the long-running massage-therapy service.

The how of Amstalden's firing, however, turned into its own controversy that has simmered for nearly two weeks. Supporters of Amstalden and Stepuchin repeatedly Farah Galfond, who saw Stepuchin's video on Twitter and loudly complained to the WSOP and others while adding in some pointed and admittedly condescending commentary of her own, for which she apologized soon after. Despite the attacks launched Galfond's way, however, any objective analysis of the circumstances shows that only two people are responsible for Amstalden's firing -- Stepuchin and Amstalden herself.

It's possible to cut through the emotion and opinion, to slice around the sexism and misogyny, and to understand the unfortunate episode for what it is: a sad example of what can happen when people just don't think about the greater circumstances of their own actions. It all just never needed to happen, and it'll go down as a modern-era cautionary tale deep within WSOP annals. In a world where virtually everything can be caught on camera, mistakes become famous. Here, a mistake was made willfully, without too much real thought, and it didn't work out at all like the protagonist, Stepuchin, might have hoped his joke would play.

Once posted on social media...

Social media exists as a modern mass display of the classic line, "You can't unring a bell." People make livings just from compiling the things that other people say or post online that they shouldn't have. We've all said and posted things that we've come to regret later; making mistakes, even big ones, is a part of the human experience.

The initial mistake was Stepuchin's, in not immediately dismissing this idea of filming himself getting a nipple massage at the WSOP as a really, really bad idea. To what extent alcohol may have factored into this particular bad idea hasn't really been specified, either. The second mistake was Amstalden's, in agreeing to play a part in Stepuchin's video gag while she was on duty at the WSOP. And the third mistake was Stepuchin's, in actually going ahead and publishing the short video. It was quickly deleted after the furor arose, but still images of it exist, such as one reprinted over at TightPoker by Jennifer Newell, a veteran poker writer who took Stepuchin to task for his misogyny amid the whole sordid episode. And yes, there was misogyny amid the whole conflagration; we'll get to that in a bit.

Here's the picture, so you can see (and judge) for yourself what all the fuss has been about. In a recent appearance on Todd Witteles' Poker Fraud Alert podcast, Amstalden repeatedly referred to Stepuchin's video as a "prank," declaring that it wasn't a real massage, and that the whole video was only 19 seconds long.

Witteles, who invited Amstalden on his show, repeatedly described the episode as "victimless," while reassuring his listeners that, "It's not a big deal." Witteles omitted some facts, though, in his recasting of Amstalden's story, and his opinions, like mine, like all of ours, just don't matter here. What Amstalden did here may have been a prank to her, but it was still a parody of a sexually intimated act, and she did it while wearing PMI-logoed garb and very clearly while out in the middle of the WSOP floor.

That's clearly -- at least in my opinion -- a fireable offense, and once the WSOP and PMI actually viewed the video, her fate was sealed. Both the WSOP and PMI strive to maintain high levels of decorum on the floor of the world's largest poker festival, and the reply that PMI sent to Farah Galfond after Galfond complained about Stepuchin's video illustrates exactly that:

Filmed behavior may have violated state licensing code

The part of the story where opinions cease to matter and facts become dominant takes over from there. Rather than this being a "victimless" circumstance, both PMI and the WSOP had their images slagged, however briefly, by Stepuchin's crass video. Those two entities' need to protect their corporate images, however, is only one part of that angle. Amstalden's unthinking willingness to go along with the gag may have placed her in violation of Nevada business codes governing certain categories of state-licensed workers.

Semi-pro player and California-licensed private investigator Bob Mather was one of the first poker people to pick up on this aspect of Amstalden's egregious error:

That's right; Amstalden could be brought up on a complaint in Nevada, based solely upon Stepuchin's video, whether deleted since or not. Massage therapists are licensed by the state of Nevada at a cost of $480/year. Many therapists travel from out of state to work at Nevada's major summer poker festivals, and the short-term gigs are so lucrative for the good therapists that the travel warrants the investment. Nevada appears to have agreements in place to recognize the licenses of therapists coming in from other states, though they still have to pay the licensing fee, and they have to adhere to Nevada's professional codes. Prank or not, you can't legally touch certain body parts.

Whether Amstalden will ever be contacted by Nevada regulators is one of those "wayyy out there" questions, but if it happened, she could receive anything from a letter of rebuke to a denial of her right to do future therapist work in the state. It'd be rather easy for her to show that it was indeed a "prank," and that might save her further censure, but again, it's hard to unring that first bell.

Appearing on PFA another poor decision?

Whether Amstalden was wise to appear on Witteles' PokerFraudAlert podcast is another curious question. Among the tidbits she disclosed was that she was never paid for or received any gratuity from Stepuchin for appearing in his video, which is actually quite good for her in a legal sense. She repeatedly asserted to Witteles and his audience, "I take full responsibility."

She also describes some circumstances surrounding Stepuchin's original posting and later deletion of the video. She claimed that she quickly went to PMI management and informed them of the video's existence, and presumably without actually having seen the video at that point, someone at PMI encouraged her to try to have the video deleted. However, by that point or very shortly thereafter, the WSOP itself had heard of and viewed the video. Then, according to Amstalden, the WSOP "director" -- perhaps Ty Stewart? -- had been in touch with PMI, and PMI then said that it was too late, and that PMI had to release Amstalden from her duties. Subjectively, listening to Amstalden share her version of events, there may have been some language-related confusion, and there may have been uncertainty by PMI in the heat of the moment about what had actually transpired, as it was a still a quickly evolving hot mess.

Sadly, the worst part of Amstalden's PFA appearance was her continuing to villify Farah Galfond for her probable but unproven role in the episode. It's likely that Galfond's series of tweets was the first that the WSOP heard of the whole strange bit. However, Galfond has repeatedly claimed that Stepuchin himself tagged the WSOP in his original posting of the video, and there's absolutely no reason not to take Galfond at her word.

Stepuchin has more than 1,800 followers on Twitter at last check. (By comparison, that's more than I have.) Add in the reach of likes and retweets, and it's likely that his typical tweet can be seen by several thousand readers. To believe that Farah Galfond was the only person to be upset by the sexist and crass nature of Stepuchin's video is a ridiculous assertion, yet many people want to believe just that. The truth is that if it hadn't been Galfond, it would have been another Twitter user calling the WSOP's and PMI's attention to the video, and the same exact thing would have happened: Amstalden would have lost her job. Painting Farah Galfond as a villain is a classic example of blaming the messenger rather than understanding the message.

Amstalden repeatedly accepted responsibility, but she also repeatedly asserted, referring to Galfond, "Two wrongs don't make a right." As if Galfond and others don't have a right to comment about things that are posted on social media. That's not how it works. It illustrates that there's still plenty of anger out there, simmering, on both sides.

Stepuchin's misogyny resurfaces in attack on Phil Galfond

Since Farah Galfond is the wife of famed player Phil Galfond, it was all but inevitable that Phil would get dragged into the mess. Stepuchin took care of that himself in a nasty, misogynistic tweet. Stepuchin wrote, "Good evening Phil. Hope you are having a relaxing evening at home with your 'Boss'. Apparently she’s got evil in her to wanna fk Cintia’s life up. A single Mom of two. How was 'The Boss' affected by any of this? She was not present. Good luck keeping her happy. @PhilGalfond".

That Stepuchin couldn't see the misogyny in his own behavior was rather amazing. Elsewhere in his Twitter feed, he wrote, "I simply asked Cintia and then we proceeded. Our country is getting too soft. I’m a staunch supporter for women in poker and have defended them at the tables always. I understand that some women think that this was a malicious act. Not my intention." Supporting women at the tables, though, isn't enough. Not being misogynistic means supporting all women in life's struggles; it's not like a cheap jacket one can put on or take off as circumstances make convenient.

I don't think any reasonable person thinks Stepuchin was being malicious. I've seen him in person and he instead comes off, in my personal opinion, as the type of person who craves attention and goes after it any way he can. There are quite a few people like that within the scope of any particular WSOP. In Stepuchin's case, however, he doesn't yet understand that even what he asked for from Amstalden, to join his prank video, also carried misogynistic undertones. Amstalden might even share some of Stepuchin's viewpoints, but when she's representing her employer, the employer's viewpoints and corporate reputation come into play as well. As do those state licensing codes, perhaps above all else.

If Stepuchin's "Our country is getting too soft" is how he defends misogynistic behavior, then that's a problem. It's unfortunately yet another facet of a large, large sexism issue that poker struggles to address. It's not going to get totally fixed any time soon, much as anyone might hope.

Stepuchin does deserve some credit amid the quagmire. He started a GoFundMe to try to raise living expenses for Amstalden after her planned WSOP summer work ended rather badly. Stepuchin himself, according to information posted at that fundraiser, has also given Amstalden $5,000 to help defray her immediate living expenses. It's still an unfortunate situation all around, with no easy or good solution to be had. Mistakes have consequences, indeed. Most of us are just fortunate enough to have dodged situations such as this, where a minute or so of unthinking can undo a good chunk of a lifetime's effort. It saddens me, as I'm sure it does many others. And remember, in this particular episode, none of our personal opinions really matter much at all.

Featured image source: Haley Hintze