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Survivor: Ghost Island Historical Perspectives: Magic Mike Drop


Andy Pfeiffer travels back into Survivor history to look at how to bluff an idol.

Lying about the possession of an idol has been done a number of times and likely far more than we’ve ever been privy to. Unfortunately for those people, possession is nine-tenths of the law: If you don’t actually have an idol, you’re not going to save yourself if your bluff gets called. The worst part of what Michael Yerger tried to pull was that he didn’t have an “item” to show Kellyn Bechtold which would, in turn, convince Domenick Abbate and Wendell Holland as well. Perhaps this was largely due to the idols being recycled from past seasons, but even so, he could have pulled it off.

This week on Historical Perspectives will examine what Michael could have learned in how to bluff an idol to change the vote before Tribal, as opposed to at Tribal.

SURVIVOR 101: FEIGNING THE IDOL

Fake idols have been a thing as long as idols have been in their true form, when Yau-Man Chan painted a smiley face on a coconut husk and buried it in the spot he dug up his turtle talisman in OG Fiji. It’s still buried there, but the stage was set. If someone could place a fake, what if someone could bluff a fake? In China, multiple people – namely Jaime Dugan and Jean-Robert Bellande – removed placards that were not actually idols even though they thought they were. They acted as if they had a legit idol, which Jason Siska followed suit with in Micronesia and the F***ing Stick. All of these events inspired Gabon winner Bob Crowley to develop fake idols of his own – ones he knew weren’t real, but he’d act as if they were anyway.

Bob’s first idol ended up being given to Randy Bailey when an over-eager Sugar Kiper insisted upon it, wanting to delight herself by causing misery to the man she saw as a grumpy old troll. For some reason, Bob not only went along with it but owned up to being in on it – and still got Randy’s jury vote anyway. The second fake idol was Bob and Corinne’s plan to pretend that Marcus hadn’t actually disposed of the idol at the faux merge feast, had left it at camp, and told Bob where it was… despite the rules being that the idol was dead once Marcus got voted out (as was the case with Ozzy and Jason a season prior), unless he had bequeathed it unto Bob before his torch was snuffed. While nobody believed this plan enough to switch the vote off of Corinne, naturally the target after Bob’s immunity challenge victory, it did prompt Kenny Hoang to switch his vote to Matty to make it a split in case it was real.

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The first truly successful fake idol bluff was that of Rupert in Heroes vs. Villains. During a treasure hunt after Jeff Probst read an idol clue to everyone, Queen Sandra found the idol and hid it for herself only. Rupert decided that while he didn’t have the idol, he could play like he did, so he washed off a rock and stuck it in his pocket. Seeing the bulge made Russell Hantz lose his mind – fast. It prompted Russell to split the Villains’ vote to force Rupert to play his imaginary idol. Instead of the 3-3-2 split they had foreseen, it ended up going 5-3 since Rupert and Colby realized if they both voted for the snitch, Candice Cody, and three Villains were voting for her, she would leave instead of either of them. She did. With Rupert of all people having a strategic success, the idea to fake having an idol to avoid being the target had forever entered Survivor strategy.

A WORKING PLAN

Rupert’s plan worked because he had a gullible, paranoid player that wanted to vote him out in Russell Hantz – someone quick to believe even the slightest sign that he could be in trouble. It isn’t just how you go about it, it’s also who you try to punk with it. There’s absolutely no question that Michael picked the best available option for the job, as an emotional person like Kellyn is bound to have an overreaction. While he claims he told Kellyn that he was the one who found the Kaoh Rong idols and not Donathan, he had no physical evidence to back it up. He could have easily made a fake and still fooled someone like Kellyn by claiming it’s something it’s not. Only the super-duper fans can recognize an idol at first glance and discern whose it was, after all, so while Kellyn is a superfan podcast listener, she might buy it in her exhausted Day 29 state if Michael picked the right story as to which idol it was. Something forgettable like Ozzy’s in South Pacific or the one John Rocker got voted out with in SJDS would do the trick.

Of all people, Abi-Maria Gomes had perhaps the most effective at-camp idol bluff since Rupert’s. In Philippines, she shelled out $500 for an “Advantage” at the Auction, which let her bypass the first two phases of the Immunity Challenge to give her a one in three shot to win. However, the Brazilian Dragon got crafty in a brilliant manner that her tribemates never anticipated. Seeing as she’d played an idol the night before the auction, leaving only one still in the game at the final seven (the Matsing idol, which everyone knew was in Malcolm’s bag), it was realistic that another would be hidden, even during the Dark Ages. She lied she got two advantages: One at the challenge (which she won despite her torn ACL) and one clue to a new idol. While there were doubts about its legitimacy, the others tried to force her to play it but voted out Carter. Abi sat on it, which supported their doubts that the idol was real. They promptly voted her out in fifth. Her play shows that she’s not half bad at Survivor – if only the buff didn’t make her go crazy.

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Michael could have taken the Abi route and developed an actual fake idol, alongside telling a story about how he found it that had basis in reality. Instead of stealing Donathan’s thunder, he could have come up with another tale that nobody could contradict. Laurel could have informed Domenick that Donathan actually had the Kaoh Rong Super Idol, so Michael was lying and could simply be voted out. Having a story that nobody else could contradict would increase paranoia. By crafting a fake and saying he found it in the exact same spot by the well where Tai had dug it up a year prior (as Naviti is the same beach as Mana), just looking there on a hunch, he could have changed the tide.

SOMETIMES IT… KIND OF WORKS?

In SJDS, Val Collins for some unknown reason claimed she had found two idols, one on Exile and one at camp. When John Rocker found the one at camp, he STILL believed her! Unforgivably stupid. Josh Canfield, however, knew exactly what was up and foiled the plan that the boneheads he was working with put together by switching his vote from Baylor Wilson, the secondary target, to Val. Josh had detected that Val and her only ally, Jaclyn Misch, were using that lie to craft a split with someone other than themselves and putting their votes on Baylor to give her the same coup de grace that Candice Cody lay in from Heroes vs. Villains. Because of Josh’s keen insight, Val’s plan was foiled – but at least she almost succeeded since her ridiculous lie got the boys to split between Baylor instead of Jaclyn. That alone merits success, but against an ordinary crew it probably wouldn’t have flown. Of the Coyopa majority, only Josh and Dale “farmguy69” Wentworth were worth a damn.

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Val’s plan failed because it was too egregious for a fan of the show like Josh to believe that she could have found two idols. A recruit like Rocker would fall for it, even when he had concrete evidence that Val was lying, since if he’d found the Coyopa idol, she clearly hadn’t. Ghost Island, however, is comprised of fans of the show (done so they could appreciate the relics, even recruits like Jenna and Amazing Race transfers like James), so Michael obviously couldn’t claim he had two idols. He already tried that lie once, when it made sense and thus nearly succeeded, so he couldn’t claim that Tai and Scot’s idols were separate items. It could have saved both him and Laurel if he had that option available, however. His best option was to be more intelligent with who he was voting for, since his vendetta against Wendell only serving to make him unable to work with the Naviti core.

Farmguy69 himself tried a failed idol bluff, punking Jaclyn’s husband-to-be Jon by convincing the Disney Prince that a random token he (Dale) had grabbed from treemail on Day 1 was an idol. With his back against the wall, Dale had almost no other options left other than to try to trick the most oblivious person on his tribe into believing the idol was real, which Jon did. Dale promised Jon that if he were spared, he’d cough up the idol, using the excuse that he wanted to buy himself more than just one more vote. Though Jon bought it, Jaclyn didn’t and they voted farmguy69 out – and he took his phony idol with him. Can’t blame him for trying!

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Had Michael tried this approach and shown Kellyn a fake talisman of sorts, again claiming that it was some forgettable idol that someone delirious from a month of not eating would fail to picture, she would have eaten it up and passed it on to Domenick. Domenick might have asked Michael to see it, too, which Michael would have welcomed. Having both Domenick and Kellyn paranoid would shift the target off of Michael – or at least lead to a 2-2-2 vote split if Kellyn was willing to reveal that she had her extra vote, which she might have it was to avoid being idoled out. It didn’t stop Lauren Rimmer last season from throwing it out there even when there wasn’t an idol in her face. And it didn’t stop Stephen Fishbach in Cambodia to get cocky and reveal to Spencer how his vote stealer would send Joe home with his own vote. That worked out better for Joe than it did for Fishbach.

FISSION MAILED

The most notable example of a completely failed idol bluff occurred this season, with our friend Jacob Derwin producing an “idol” but no instructions upon being asked for them. Michael, having had a front-row seat, knew that Jacob had failed because he called a “House Meeting” to tell everyone he’d found the idol, an obvious act of desperation, which naturally led to him being called out. House Meetings never end well. Nobody believed Jacob’s idol was real because he called so much attention to it and, when he realized it didn’t work, he backpedaled and told Stephanie Johnson literally everything. She had no use to keep someone who had lied to her so early in the game.

Joe Anglim in Worlds Apart used his jewelry designing background to craft a fake idol to bluff and attempt to use as collateral to convince Mike Holloway to keep him. Figuring it was a phony, Mike played it to try and earn the trust of a tribemate to burn it at that Tribal. Literal burn that was left out of the edit. Joe got voted out that night since Mike didn’t try to keep him – the right move for Mike, seeing as he wouldn’t have been able to win out if Joe was still there. The following season, an immune Kelley Wentworth came up with a great plan to play into the varying idol designs of the season and make a fake for her only ally Keith Nale to bluff with. Keith, being Keith, didn’t think it would change anything, so he sat on it – the one thing for which she lacked foresight. Had she bluffed it herself, she might have been able to work her Wentworth magic and turn Jeremy and Spencer against each other. In addition to these, we are also probably not privy to many failed attempts that hit the cutting room floor. Dr. Mike’s Statue of Liberty play, though at Tribal, is a prime example of this.

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The reason Michael ultimately failed is because he didn’t have the physical evidence to provide or a story to tell. He just assumed saying he had an idol would work and didn’t even attempt to bargain with it. Since Donathan denied him permission to “borrow” the idol – rightfully so, since Donathan didn’t want to end up like Marty Piombo in Nicaragua and never get it back – Michael should have resorted to plan B and made a decoy. While he picked the right option in Kellyn, who was guaranteed to have an emotional overreaction, over Domenick or Wendell, he didn’t count on Kellyn’s ability to sell the two of them. Domenick and Wendell are obviously threatened by Michael, who is articulate and, though boring, well-liked. He’s a big threat to them both. Michael also made several previous errors, such as turning Angela against him by mishandling her socially, calling the shots despite having no power, and voting for Wendell, which he then did again to ultimately confirm that he could never integrate into Naviti. By being so much of a hostile threat, his bluff was called, and that is why it failed even though Kellyn made it a split. Even though he improved from Jacob, he still didn’t have a prayer.


Andy is a 30-year-old from Wisconsin, having an English major from UW-Whitewater. He has watched Survivor from the very first episode and can't go a day without running Survivor-related thoughts in his head. When he's not entranced by a computer at home or work, he's probably playing a video game or out and about somewhere. You can follow him on Twitter @IAmAndyPfeiffer.



  • Trintex

    I disagree. His bluff my not have been the most successful ever, for the reasons you mentioned, but it was a success. He managed to direct two other votes (Kellyn’s) to Laurel, and there were only two votes for him. Had he voted for Laurel, it would be 3 votes Laurel and 2 votes Michael, with 1 for Kellyn. His bluff was fine, his vote was just misplaced.

    • Andy Pfeiffer

      My point is he could have fooled Domenick and Wendell, too, had he crafted a fake. He let Domenick read him like a book and that, when mixed in with his strategic blindness (he really bought that Wendell plan? Come on.), doomed him. It also would have worked if he had any awareness of what was really going on, but that’s not really something I can write an article about. I already did something similar the round Libby went to jury.

      The other thing Michael could have done was give himself more than just one round. Farmguy69 used that as his excuse for a reason. If Michael simply votes Laurel out and doesn’t play an idol, he’s gone next no matter what, barring an immunity win. Voting Laurel out would only make him an even bigger threat. He could have done more with a fake idol and possibly ensured he was kept around a lot longer. He didn’t.

  • Ryan Neilson

    Michael will definitely be remembered as a scrapper, but looking back on his game, while he was willing to play, there were always flaws in the execution. I think he was too intent on getting someone to flip by voting out the biggest player, whereas a lot of the successful blindsides are for randoms who are expendable to an alliance. Had he not been so intent on getting Wendell out, and tried to listen to what the Naviti members actually wanted, he might have been able to hold on long enough to really change his game.

    • Andy Pfeiffer

      I 100% agree with this assessment. He was too focused on getting out the biggest threat to HIM, not taking into consideration what was even best for the rest of Malolo. His lack of flexibility and his inability to work with Navitis not named Kellyn Bechtold made it so he never had a chance to win. I’ve been highly critical of his game throughout the season for a reason. First it was naming Bradley as his target, wasting his genius double-immunity idol lie. Second it was him deciding that Wendell was going to be the target despite him having zero power – if you don’t have power, nobody’s going to listen to the shots you’re calling, and he should have let Laurel and Donathan choose the target. Thirdly, it’s this. He could have made a fake idol and found a way to move forward not only this round but through the next as well.

      Overall, I think Michael is a scrappy underdog, but he’s not a very rootable one because his personality only really shined in his Ponderosa video. I don’t root for someone who bores me (except in cases like Chelsea this season when it’s the edit’s fault). I’d prefer to see Devon Pinto play again over him every single time (for the young, surprisingly articulate bro beyond his years type).