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Hold Up, Jeff: Ranking the Survivor Idol Plays (10-1)


Steven Schultz ranks the best (and worst) Survivor idol plays of all time.

In the lead up to Survivor: Ghost Island, where the past advantages twist is sure to bring more idols into play, Inside Survivor is counting down the best (and worst) idol plays of all-time. I have ranked the idol plays based primarily on effectiveness of the move, rather than straight up entertainment value. I originally compiled the list by separating the idol plays into categories of The Best, Good Moves, Okay Moves, Last Night to Play It, and The Worst. Also, tribal councils that featured multiple idols plays have been combined into one entry.

You can check out rankings #50 – 11 here.

Now it is finally time to get to the Top 10!

#10 Jeremy Collins and Kelley Wentworth – Cambodia – Episode 14

10KelJer

This tribal council is one of the craziest in Survivor history. Heading into this round, we had the majority alliance of Jeremy, Spencer, Tasha, and Kimmi on one side. And the minority alliance consisting of Wentworth and Keith on the other. The original plan was for Jeremy’s alliance to split votes 2-2-2. However, Kimmi decided to switch sides to Wentworth and Keith. Spencer and Tasha saw right through Kimmi but struggled to convince Jeremy that she’d flipped.

At tribal, Spencer put the cards on the table and said that the three were voting for one person, therefore calling out Kimmi. Despite telling her that she “was good,” Wentworth decided to play her idol. As a result of Wentworth playing her idol, Jeremy was pretty much forced into playing his too, despite wanting to save it for the next round. With Wentworth and Jeremy correctly playing their idols, and voiding all six votes, there were no votes officially cast, a Survivor first.

Jeremy was also able to see that Kimmi did, in fact, write his name down. In the revote, Jeremy, Spencer, and Tasha turned on Kimmi while Wentworth, Keith, and Kimmi voted for the only person that they could from the other side, Tasha (Spencer had won immunity). Now at a deadlock, the group had to come to a unanimous decision on who to send home out of Tasha or Kimmi, a failure to do so would automatically eliminate Keith (the only one eligible for what would have usually been a rock draw situation). After a lot of back and forth, eventually, the group came to the consensus that Kimmi would join the jury.

#9 Ben Driebergen – Heroes vs. Healers vs. Hustlers – Episode 12

9Ben

This was a tribal council with a lot of moving parts. The three episodes after the merge saw Healers voted out one-by-one before the Rogue Knights blindsided Ryan, Chrissy, and JP. In Episode 11, Devon, Lauren, and Ashley talked about the possibility of taking out Ben but ultimately decided that leaving Joe in the game any longer could be a mistake in the long run. That set up the events of Episode 12, where the Rogue Knights once again discussed when was the right time to overthrow the King. The problem was, Ben overheard their conversation at the well.

Ben attempted to make the first move against Lauren by utilizing the three on the outside (Chrissy, Ryan, and Mike). To gain their trust, he shared with the outsiders that Lauren had a hidden immunity idol and an extra vote. That information was relayed back to Lauren, and there would be no reuniting for Ben and Lauren from there, one or the other would have to depart the game. To get rid of Ben, Lauren knew that Mike would be crucial. In an effort to convince Mike to join them, Lauren gave him half of her idol. If they wanted, Mike, Chrissy, and Ryan now could vote out Lauren and take her idol out of the game with her.

At tribal council, whether Lauren was going home that night or not, Mike ensured that her idol was not going to be played when he threw the half he was given into the fire. Ben continued to call out Lauren and her advantages. Panic set in as the group broke up into huddles to discuss whether to put the votes on the former Marine or the Fisherwoman. Ben, knowing that he was at the very least guaranteed three votes against him, played his idol and correctly negated all the votes but his own. It was the perfect idol play in that it saved Ben and allowed him the sole vote to take out his target, Lauren. Ben would obviously go on to find two more idols, which we’ve previously discussed, but none were played as beautifully as the first.

#8 Tai Trang (played on Sierra Dawn-Thomas) – Game Changers – Episode 4

8Tai

This episode consisted of a Survivor first with two tribes going to tribal council together but only voting out one person. It was the new Mana tribe (Hali, Brad, Debbie, Sierra, and Tai) versus the new Nuku tribe (JT, Malcolm, Sandra, Jeff, Aubry, and Michaela). The problem with this was that Hali was originally on a tribe with all the Nukus, minus JT, while JT was initially with all the Manas, minus Hali. Also, to complicate matters further, Tai found an idol RIGHT before tribal council. With all of these elements, this was one of the most live tribals ever. It saw JT get up and cross the threshold to speak with his former tribemates, which caused Hali to do the same, and then all hell broke loose.

JT told Brad that the votes weren’t going on him. However, realizing that he possibly screwed up, JT told the Nukus what he did that and asked if they should vote for Brad because of that. But worse than that, JT told Brad that their target was Sierra. With that information, the Manas, specifically Tai, played an idol for Sierra or as Tai called her, “pretty lady.” Brad’s great bond with JT, developed in the first few days of the game, led to this crucial information, which ultimately shaped the rest of the game.

Although the tribes stuck together (Hali and JT voted with their new tribes) and gave the Nukus the numerical advantage, it didn’t matter. The Manas decided to target who they thought was the biggest threat in the game, Malcolm, over a two-time winner of the game, Sandra. This continued a stretch of original Manas being voted out. In all, seven original Manas would be voted out in the first eight votes (JT the only original Nuku).

#7 Yau-Man Chan – Fiji – Episode 13

7Yau

This was the first hidden immunity idol (minus Guatemala) to be played correctly. It feels good that Yau-Man holds that distinction. Cassandra, Boo, Dreamz, and Stacey all justifiably wrote down Yau-Man’s name at this tribal council. It was the smart move, considering Yau-Man’s all-around game would have seen him named the Sole Survivor. Despite knowing Yau-Man had an idol, the group, especially Dreamz, believed that he would save it until final five. In an ideal world, Yau-Man would have loved to have kept the idol until the final five, and then he would hope that the deal with Dreamz worked out at the final four.

But the group didn’t do enough to put Yau-Man at ease, causing him to have “bad vibes.” Also, Yau-Man’s closest ally Earl had found an idol of his own, offering a deal of comfort to the pair, knowing that they would both be able to use that idol at the next tribal for whichever of them were in trouble. With both of those points under consideration, Yau-Man made history by becoming the first successful idol player.

P.S. at this tribal council, Jeff pulled out the votes in the way he would have if Yau-Man didn’t play the idol. As in, he read them like a regular vote, pulling out Stacey, then Yau-Man, then Stacey, then Yau-Man. Of course, in later seasons, Jeff would have pulled out all the Yau-Man votes then revealed who was going to be voted out. Interesting note on the evolution of the game.

#6 Russell Hantz – Samoa – Episode 9

6Russ

“I ain’t finished playing just yet.” The idol in Episode 8 didn’t negate any votes for Russell, not only that, but it didn’t need to be played at all because no one in Russell’s alliance went home. However, it set up the events of this tribal perfectly because the Galu seven thought they had flushed the idol and now was their chance to vote Russell out. It was reasonable for them to believe that Russell wouldn’t be able to find another idol immediately after playing the last one. It is even more understandable for them to think that Russell wouldn’t play an idol on himself in back to back tribal councils. Survivor sometimes isn’t a game for reasonable thinkers.

Galu had seven members, so there was little point in splitting the votes since the Foa Foa four were going to vote together regardless. Russell walked by the group during their conversation about potential idols, and their mention of Natalie threw him off before tribal council. But this ultimately did not stop him from playing the idol for himself and completely shocking the rest of the tribe. Dave’s reactions, in particular, were ridiculous, considering the vote could have easily been for him. He was truly like all of us watching it at home. Russell negated seven votes against him, tied with Jenn Brown for the second most negated votes in Survivor history.

The fall of Galu, which started in Episode 8, continued to crumble in the episodes to follow. As Laura said, “He just stirred up a whole lot of hell, is what he did.”

#5 Natalie Anderson (played on Jaclyn Schultz) – San Juan Del Ser – Episode 14

5Nat

Sometimes having an idol isn’t just about saving yourself or an ally, it’s about making a statement and putting on a performance. That’s exactly what Natalie did with her idol at the Final 5 in San Juan Del Sur. In the previous episode, Natalie, Keith, Missy, and Baylor finally took out Jon, a well-plotted act of revenge by Natalie. But now Natalie had a dilemma on her hands, she was aligned with a mother-daughter in Missy and Baylor, and if Keith won immunity, the supposed plan was to take out Jaclyn next. If Natalie voted out Jacyln, she’d be severely cutting her chances of making it to the final tribal council, given that if Keith won the last immunity challenge, there would be no way Missy or Baylor would vote for each other, leaving Nat as the only target. When Keith won immunity in this episode, it settled it, she needed a way to save Jaclyn.

At tribal, Natalie used the idol on Jaclyn, but she didn’t just hand it over nonchalantly. She stood up, approached Jeff, turned to the tribe and asked in front of the entire tribe and jury, “Jaclyn, did you vote for who I told you to vote for?” Jaclyn replied in the affirmative. Natalie then proceeded to play the idol on Jaclyn, blindsiding the mother-daughter combo. The way Natalie performed this idol play made it abundantly clear who was calling the shots. This was a brilliantly smart move by Natalie and amongst her best on her way to being named the Sole Survivor.

#4 Amanda Kimmel – Micronesia – Episode 12

4Amanda

With two of her closest allies departing her side over the previous four days, Amanda found herself on the outside. Erik, the last remaining male in the game, was the number one target, but he won individual immunity, and therefore the target was solely on Amanda. Idol talk was a hot topic throughout the day, but Amanda was sincere when she told the majority alliance that she didn’t have it. That’s because at that point she really didn’t have it. She didn’t find the idol until late in the day and even the editors kept it a secret until tribal council itself. Her earlier sincerity paid off when Amanda stood up and danced her way over to Jeff to play her idol. She was able to save herself and negated the votes of Cirie, Erik, Alexis, and Natalie, sending Alexis to the jury.

A key element of this round was that Amanda was able to pull Parvati back to her side. The trust built by that vote – plus the fact that Cirie would have been hard to beat at the end – could be looked back on as a huge reason why Amanda brought Parvati to the final tribal council with her.

#3 Kelley Wentworth – Cambodia – Episode 8

3Went

This episode was the second tribal council after the merge, and the alliance lines had been drawn, in theory. The majority alliance consisted of a large group of Jeremey, Stephen, Spencer, Joe, Kelly Wiglesworth, Tasha, Kimmi, Keith, and Savage while the minority alliance consisted of Kelley Wentworth, Ciera, and Abi (aka the Witches Coven). The problem with those alliances was that Stephen and Joe were coming for each other. Joe won immunity in this round and wanted to utilize the minority alliance and Wiglesworth to vote out Stephen, but he didn’t have enough votes to do it. Joe needed a couple more, and he had Savage convinced. However, after talking it through with Jeremey, Savage was persuaded that this was not the right time to vote out Stephen.

Joe ran back to the minority group of girls and advised them that he did not have the votes to take out Stephen. Wentworth asked Joe if she was the target and he didn’t give her a straight answer which reaffirmed that she should grab her idol for this tribal council. Once the votes had been cast, Wentworth reached into her bag, much to the surprise of every single tribe member. Wentworth played her idol, and Jeff read the votes, revealing that all nine in the majority alliance had voted for her. Her idol play in this episode holds the record for most votes negated in one tribal council for a single person with nine. The Witches Coven voted for Savage, causing him to flip the bird for the second time in that episode once Abi told him, “at least you made it to the jury.”

One might ask why with nine people did the majority not split the votes? Well, a lot of it comes down to the scrambling that went on earlier in the day. If they tried to split 5-4-3, it would have only taken one person switching and destroying that plan. Also, although no idol talk was shown at camp, it was reasonable to believe an idol was not in possession of one of the three girls, as it likely would have been played at the last tribal council, the merge episode. Plus Wentworth had kept the idol a secret all season, not telling a single person, and therefore nobody expected her to have it. In the end, the majority alliance would end up eating their own in three of the next four episodes, and Wentworth made it all the way to the Final 4, becoming one immunity challenge victory away from almost winning the whole season.

#2 Parvati Shallow (played on Jerri Manthey & Sandra Diaz-Twine) – Heroes vs. Villains – Episode 10

2Parv

Another epic tribal council with idols in a legendary season. With the merge consisting of five Heroes and five Villains, the Heroes were hoping that Russell was on their side. The Heroes had bought into their own theories about a Parvati-led female alliance controlling the Villains tribe. As Russell was the only man remaining on the Villains tribe, it was easy to buy into the idea of an all-women alliance, especially when Russell played up this perception. JT was so sure about Russell being on the outside that he sent him his idol along with a handwritten note. JT told Russell to use the idol to save himself, send Parvati home, and then join the Heroes at the merge. However, as the tribes merged and saw that both Russell and Parvati remained, it threw their theory into question. But JT was still adamant that Russell was with them, even after Sandra straight up told them he wasn’t on their side.

Heading into tribal, the Heroes did come up with a backup plan in case Russell was lying, and they decided to put the votes on someone that the Villains would not play an idol on. But they didn’t have a backup plan for Parvati and her idols. At tribal, the Villains were able to hedge their bets by playing two idols on the two players most in danger of receiving votes, Jerri and Sandra. Parvati had played the entire tribal and day leading up to it expertly. She quickly deduced that Amanda was lying to her when she told Parv to play the idol for herself, thereby she knew the votes weren’t going on her. She stepped down from the immunity challenge to let Danielle win, thus guaranteeing the safety of another Villain. And with the Heroes still partially believing Russell was with them, she knew he wasn’t in danger. That only left Jerri or Sandra as potential targets, and she covered them both.

The five votes against Jerri were negated, and JT became the third member of the jury, voted out with his own idol. It is crazy to look back at this tribal council and wonder what if the Heroes had just put their votes on Parvati or Russell. The chances are it would still look very much the same. With a tie, JT and Parvati/Russell would have been deemed immune after the re-vote (it is unlikely that Sandra would have turned on the Villains seconds after getting an idol from them). Accordingly, only one Villain would have been eligible for the rock draw while four Heroes would have been eligible.

Parvati’s masterful play this episode gave the Villains the numbers advantage, and they were able to vote out the Heroes one by one (with Danielle in between) on their way to an all-Villain final four.

#1 Russell Hantz (played on Parvati Shallow) – Heroes vs. Villains – Episode 6

1Russ

Number one on this list is also from Heroes vs. Villains, one of the best seasons of Survivor. It was a crucial moment in the season and perhaps the vote that completely changed the course of the game. Without this idol play, Parvati would have gone home pre-merge, and Russell would have likely followed right behind her. Boston Rob could very well have led his alliance all the way to the end and turned this season into Redemption Island. Sandra may have still won the season, but it would have looked a lot different, and that is a big reason why this move has to be number one.

In this episode, Rob and the majority alliance had grown sick and tired of Russell and his constant idol searching. They wanted him gone as soon as possible. Before tribal council, Rob realized it didn’t matter about the idol. The majority alliance had enough numbers to split the votes between Russell and Parvati. It wouldn’t matter if an idol was played because then the other person would just go home instead. However, Russell spent all day trying to manipulate future winner Tyson, by convincing him to place his vote, which was supposed to be for Russell, on Parvati to ensure she would go home. Tyson felt like Parvati was a big threat, and he also seemingly couldn’t be bothered with the whole split vote situation and just wanted to get it over with and eat hot dogs (the Villains tribe had won the chance to sit in on the Heroes tribal council and eat while they watched).

Whether Tyson was manipulated by Russell or was simply being stupid, this move by Tyson would go down as one of the dumbest in Survivor history. By planting his vote on Parvati, Tyson essentially voted himself out of the game. Russell stood up, took his idol over to Jeff and then paused, “No. Not this way.” He decided to play the idol on Parvati, lobbying Coach during his speech while he did so. Rob laughed, believing that Russell had just wasted his idol. But when four votes for Parvati were revealed and negated, and only two votes on Russell, it meant the three votes on Tyson (from Russell, Parvati, and Danielle) were enough to send him packing. He’d have to eat his hot dogs back at Ponderosa. It was a move that sent shockwaves through the tribe and turned everything on its head. “What just happened?” Danielle laughed.

It’s also important to note that Russell wasn’t 100% sure that he convinced Tyson to flip. By giving the idol to Parvati, Russell was taking a big risk that he would be going home. And while you might knock some points off Russell for that, it still doesn’t take away just how monumental this idol play was. The risk was worth the reward. Russell’s idol play on Parvati saved their alliance and removed Boston Rob’s death-grip on the game. By showing that kind of loyalty to an alliance member, it turned Jerri and Coach away from Rob and over to Team Russell. It made for one of the all-time great Survivor episodes and it took Russell and Parvati all the way to the Final Three.

Thanks for reading out Idol Play countdown. Let us know your thoughts in the comments!


Steven Schultz is a native of the great city Sacramento, CA. Steven works as a lobbyist for a fantastic non-profit. He is a proud Survivor super fan who has watched every season. You can find him tweeting about Survivor, history and Newcastle FC at @StevenWSchultz.



  • Lucas Miranda

    Abi said: “At least you made it to the jury” – it was a dig because he wans’t in the jury in Pearl Islands, but he was ate the marge.

  • Andy Pfeiffer

    I’m not in agreeance with your #1; the three before it are above it, in my mind. Wentworth’s is my personal #1, followed by Amanda’s (you neglected to mention the most important part in that she affirmed that Cirie would be loyal if the vets had the numbers) and Parvati’s double-idol stunt. I just don’t like Hantz, but him convincing Tyson to blindside himself was fantastic. It’s hard for me to rank all of the top six. The ones you listed in the top six ARE the top six, so you got that much right – good for you 🙂

    I’ve made it no secret that Natalie Anderson’s idol play won her the game. Because it did. Not only could nobody else take credit for anything done there, it created a final four scenario where she would survive no matter which of herself, Keith, or Jaclyn won immunity. If not for that idol play, she goes out in 4th because Keith would win the final IC without Jaclyn there to stop him.

  • GregHulks

    These articles have been really great! It’s interesting that although men are statistically far more likely to find idols, many of the most successful/memorable plays have been by female players

  • Whistler

    In the end it’s not about playing an idol successfully but to win the game in the end. Wentworth, Hantz etc were all pretty flashy moves but it didn’t win them the game. Only Ben and Natalie’s idol play had the effect of them winning in the end.

  • Faisal Calderon

    #5 You should said that Natalie Anderson used an Idol to take out Baylor, and it was Baylor who showed Natalie the idol clue. Also you should put that Baylor told her to use the idol for her Mon, and these 2 were pretty happy when Nat said: Jeff… I mean it was amazing.