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Hold Up, Jeff: Ranking the Survivor Idol Plays (20-11)


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 – 21 here.

Let’s continue with the countdown!

#20 Jon Misch and Keith Nale – San Juan Del Ser – Episode 10

20JonKeith

We enter this episode at a fascinating spot in the season. At the previous tribal council, Jeremy was blindsided by his own alliance (Jon, Jaclyn, Missy, and Baylor) and Reed. Jeremy’s closest ally, Natalie, was left out of the vote but she was pulled back into the group when Jon revealed that he had an idol. Knowing that he couldn’t continue with the majority alliance, Reed picked up the remaining pieces (Keith, Wes, and Alec) and thus, the sides were split 5-4.

At tribal, the majority alliance knew that Keith had an idol, so they split the votes between him and his son, Wes. The craziness began with Reed acting like he was still part of the majority alliance  – a move which caused a confused Keith to blurt out “stick to the plan.” This definitely caught the majority, specifically Natalie, off guard. Natalie advised Jon to play his idol, and so he did. Jon’s idol play caused Keith to play his too (although there was a second where he offered it to his son). Seven votes in total were negated during this tribal council (four for Jon and three for Keith), and the split worked with Wes going home with only two votes. They were both effective idol plays from Jon and Keith, although they lose points for having others basically have to tell them to use it.

#19 Joe Mena – Heroes vs. Healers vs. Hustlers – Episode 4

19Joe

This was the first tribal council following the tribe swap, and it did not disappoint. The new Soko tribe, which consisted of two Heroes (Ashely & Alan), two Healers (Joe & Desi) and one Hustler (Devon), lost the immunity challenge, sending them to tribal council. At this point, a Healer had yet to be voted out of the game, and so the natural move was for Ashely, Alan, and Devon to join forces and eliminate either Joe or Desi. But what should have been a straightforward vote was tipped on its head due to an idol and an unknown advantage, cursed upon Devon by Jessica on the new Yawa tribe.

The advantage could block someone from voting. Jessica, in her confessional, stated that she was going to play it in a way to protect the Healers. Jessica really should have blocked one of the Heroes votes and been hopeful that the swing vote would have swung to the Healers to avoid a tie. Yes, it’s hard to identify the dynamics of a tribe that you’re not a member of, but even if the former Heroes and Healers were going to vote out swing vote Devon, then removing a Hero vote still would have made it 3 vs. 1.

Either way, Jessica blocked Devon’s vote, and it created a foreseeable deadlock between the Heroes and Healers. Joe’s aggressiveness back at camp put the target on his back just like he hoped, and he played the idol for himself rather than Desi. It was the right call, as Ashley and Alan had planted their votes on the Probation Officer. Whether or not Joe read Ashely’s face, like he said that he did, he did bring up a good point about watching the other players’ reactions as you play the idol. They might just show their cards.

#18 Tom Westman – Heroes vs. Villains – Episode 4

18Tom

This episode is where the gameplay of Heroes vs. Villains really started to take off. Entering this tribal council, everyone knew that Tom had an idol. Tom and Colby were also on the outside of the tribe with JT, Rupert, Candice, Amanda, Cirie, and James forming a majority. With six people, the dominant alliance knew that they could easily split the votes between Tom and Colby. If Tom didn’t play the idol, he would go home on the re-vote, but if Tom did play the idol, then Colby would be the collateral.

Survivor is never that easy. JT didn’t trust Cirie. He knew how dangerous of a player she was and he was worried about letting her get further in the game. So, knowing an idol was likely to be played, JT decided to vote with Colby and Tom in order to eliminate the self-proclaimed Gangsta in an Oprah suit. This vote switch by JT meant that only two votes were on Colby.  After Tom’s idol was played, Cirie was sent home with just three votes against her.

While Tom saved himself here, it was short-lived, JT didn’t care about linking up with Tom and Colby in the long-run, it was simply a selfish move to eliminate Cirie. At the next tribal, JT jumped back to the majority alliance and voted out Tom. However, Colby would go on to be the last Hero standing, surprisingly.

#17 Carolyn Rivera – Worlds Apart – Episode 13

17Carolyn

Six people left and a five-person alliance. Sounds simple, right? Vote out the person on the outside. However, that person on the outside was Mike and, of course, he won individual immunity. So the alliance was going to have to eat its own. The majority decided Carolyn should be the target and told her to vote Dan. But this plan fell apart when the alliance also decided to tell Mike to vote out Dan. In an attempt to cause cracks in the majority, Mike proceeded to go to Dan to tell him that he could save him. However, Dan felt safe and refused to accept Mike’s offer. But the fact that Dan felt so safe perked Mike’s ears up, and he pointed it out to Carolyn.

Ideally, Carolyn wanted to hold onto her idol for one more tribal council to ensure her spot in the final four. But once Dan decided to play his advantage, an extra vote, it made perfect sense for Carolyn to stand up and play her idol. Mama C was right, and the audience got an iconic celebration from her. This round put her solidly in an alliance with Mike for the rest of the game and took her to the final tribal council.

#16 David Wright (played on Jessica Lewis) – Millennials vs. Gen X – Episode 4

16David

This move by David to save Jessica was initially criticized by some when the episode first aired. Some people thought that David playing his idol pre-merge for someone that he didn’t have an amazing relationship with was an unnecessary risk, especially with a potential swap coming. But as the game rolled on, it became clear just how vital this early idol play was in not only securing David’s allies but building his resume.

Ultimately, the rewards of his idol play were plentiful. It helped get David’s closest ally, Ken, get the Legacy Advantage, which Jessica promised him, and it secured David a crucial number in the war with Zeke that followed after the merge. If Lucy had stayed over Jessica and made it to the merge, the chances are that she would have had more loyalty to Bret and Sunday than David. Playing an idol on somebody else, especially that early in the game, doesn’t always equate to a smart move, but keeping people you trust in the game is better than having people that you don’t trust. Besides, with the idols being hidden the way they were in this season, David must have known that there was high chance he would be able to find another one, which he did.

#15 Jonathan Penner – Philippines – Episode 7

15Penner

We entered the Survivor: Philippines merge with six Tandang members (RC, Pete, Abi, Lisa, Skupin, and Artis) who had been together since Day 1, and on the other side, three Kalabaw members (Jeff, Penner, and Carter). In the middle of the two tribes was Malcolm and Denise, who had been split up between the two tribes for the past two votes.

This was the very first tribal council for Tandang, a Survivor first, and the group was ready to go at each other’s throats. However, a majority of Tandang (minus RC) were prepared to take out Penner with Carter, Jeff, Malcolm, and Denise. With such a big group, they decided to split the votes between Jonathan and RC. But Penner correctly identified that he had the most votes against him, with five, and got up to play his idol. With Jeff and Carter turning down Penner’s offer to vote with him to take out Pete, it meant RC became the first member of the jury in her first and only tribal council of the season. Penner’s move shook the game up so much that he was able to see four more tribal councils.

#14 Jenn Brown – Worlds Apart – Episode 7

14Jenn

Coming into the merge in Worlds Apart, we had five Blue Collars (Mike, Rodney, Sierra, Dan, and Kelly), four No Collars (Jenn, Hali, Joe, and Will) and three White Collars (Carolyn, Tyler, and Shirin). Things quickly became Blue Collars vs. No Collars, with the former White Collars up for grabs. The first target of the Blue Collars, Joe, won immunity which shifted the target onto Jenn. To see if Will was loyal, Mike told him to write down Hali’s name. The No Collars were able to pull in Shirin while the Blue Collars were able to bring aboard Carolyn and Tyler.

Jenn could tell that the target was either Hali or herself and advised Hali that they needed to find out, revealing that she had the idol. At tribal council, Jenn was correct that she was the target and played the idol for herself and Kelly went home. The seven votes that she negated are tied for second most in Survivor history. In the end, this was just a small bump for the Blue Collars on their way to dominating the rest of the game. But as a single idol play, Jenn absolutely nailed it.

#13 Mike Holloway – Worlds Apart – Episode 12

13Mike1

At this stage in the game, it was pretty much Mike versus the World. The blue-collar Oil Driller had won the previous two individual immunities, and it looked like he would be voted out the second he lost. Well, he didn’t win immunity in this episode, but the majority alliance did not account for an idol.

Mike was able to lay the groundwork with Carolyn here, something that would pave the way for their future working relationship (see #17). After unveiling his idol at the previous tribal council and bluffing that he’d use it on Shirin, Mike had managed to cause some tension in the majority, due to Tyler switching his vote to Dan. Mike continued to use the idol to turn the majority against each other and was able to convince Carolyn and Sierra to join him in voting Tyler. At tribal council, Mike played the idol and voided the four votes against him, sending home Tyler with three votes.

As the biggest target remaining, Mike went back into individual immunity mode and won the rest of them on his way to the final three and $1 million.

#12 Tai Trang (played on himself and Aubry Bracco) and Troyzan Roberston – Game Changers – Episode 14

12Tai

For weeks prior to this tribal council, we knew that Advantageddon was coming at some point and boy did it strike in a big way. Entering this tribal, Tai had two idols, Troyzan had an idol, and Sarah had the Legacy Advantage that had to be used at the Final 6. It was fairly well known around camp that Tai had idols, but no one knew about Troyzan’s idol or Sarah’s advantage. Brad attempted to get the second idol from Tai, telling him it was the only way he could trust him. But Brad intended to vote Tai out at the Final 5. The bullying tactics from Brad backfired and led Tai to go in the opposite direction, choosing to work with Aubry and Cirie. Brad himself was safe due to winning individual immunity, of course.

During the tribal discussion, the divide seemed pretty clear with Sarah, Troyzan, and Brad on one side and Tai, Aubry and Cirie on the other. The pressure put on Tai was definitely going to lead to him playing an idol on himself, which he did. But Tai also pulled out the second idol, playing it on his friend and ally Aubry. Thus at this point, Brad, Tai, and Aubry were all safe. Sarah then played her Legacy Advantage, which prompted Troyzan to jump on the “immunity train” and hand his idol over to Jeff too. Now everyone was immune except for Cirie, who was eliminated due to default.

Even though the criticism of too many advantages and idols is a valid one, you can’t criticize how well each person played their hand here. Tai correctly played both his idols on himself and Aubry, the two people who Brad, Troyzan, and Sarah had voted for. Sarah and Troy’s moves weren’t quite as impressive, given that they had no real choice but to play their immunity at that point, but it still saved their butts and ultimately took them to FTC.

#11 Malcolm Freberg (played on himself and Eddie Fox) – Caramoan – Episode 10

11Malc

The Three Amigos tribal council is one of the most well-known in Survivor history. We had just seen Malcolm try to take a preemptive strike at the majority alliance by telling Reynold to “Hold up, bro,” and although that move didn’t work, it set up this tribal council beautifully. Eddie, Malcolm, and Reynold were firmly on the outside, with Phillip’s Stealth R Us alliance making up the majority. The first part of this idol attack required one of the three to win individual immunity, which occurred when Reynold won. The second thing was that they needed two idols. Malcolm had one heading into this episode (yes, he already had one when he asked Reynold to give him his) and was able to find another during this episode in plain sight. Perfect, all the elements needed to create a chaotic tribal council.

The genius of this move is in its innovation. Nobody had taken tribal hostage quite like this up until this point in Survivor history. Rather than just blindsiding the majority after the votes, Malcolm unveiled the idols at tribal, giving one to his trusted amigo Eddie. They told everyone who they were voting for (Phillip), which bred paranoia and allowed them to see who might be interested in voting with them in the future. Nowadays “live tribals” are all the rage, but this was the first instance of mass pre-vote panic.

However, the justifiable criticism of this move is the Three Amigos’ choice of target. Not only was Phillip not a threat to win the season, but he was the one person in the Stealth R Us alliance that the other members would be happy to lose. Also, announcing their target so blatantly kind of backfired. Malcolm ideally wanted to save one of the idols, but Erik called his bluff, and the majority decided to stick to their plan, forcing Malcolm to play both idols. Stealth R Us split their votes between Malcolm and Eddie – apart from Erik who flipped – and allowed the Amigos to idol out Phillip. The Three Amigos were unable to work their way back into the game after this craziness. So while the move gets credit for its innovation, it does feel like Malcolm missed an opportunity to take out a huge threat to win, like Cochran.

Come back to Inside Survivor tomorrow as we reveal the Top 10  Survivor Idol Plays of All-Time!


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.



  • Ishay

    The three amigos tribal should’ve earned Malcolm a place in the top 10.