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Hold Up, Jeff: Ranking the Survivor Idol Plays (40-31)


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 – 41 here.

Let’s continue with the countdown!

#40 Jay Starrett – Millennials vs. Gen X – Episode 13

40Jay

After holding onto the idol tribal after tribal – where you thought, “If Jay doesn’t play it this time, he will definitely be voted out” – Jay FINALLY played the damn thing in Episode 13. Sadly, it was another situation where he could have held onto his idol and gone back to the Vinaka camp safe and sound. But in Jay’s defense, it would have been hard for him to identify that the majority would want to get rid of a non-threat in the form of Sunday – who was the only person to write down Jay’s name at this tribal council.

Jay did hint at not playing the idol, but the fact that Adam told him about his mother’s cancer right before they left camp, probably made Jay think Adam was going to do everything to take out the biggest threats to win. In the end, Jay played his idol unnecessarily and was voted out at the next tribal council.

#39 Spencer Bledsoe – Cagayan – Episode 10

39Spencer1

Coming into this tribal council, Tasha was safe with the immunity necklace, and Spencer had the hidden idol to use between himself and his only other alliance member, Jeremiah. This group of three did a great job of identifying Woo as their target, right after Tony found the Super Idol. However, Spencer didn’t do as good a job of recognizing that the majority alliance, especially Kass, believed that Spencer had the idol. Woo even said during tribal that they considered which one of the two may have it. Spencer, or “the young lad,” paused for a moment before giving Jeff the idol. As Spencer stood up to play it, Tony was playing with his “bag of tricks” in an effort to make Spencer think twice about the move. Standing up and looking at Tony, Spencer was reassured he was making the right move by his alliance and then handed the idol to Jeff. Spencer’s mistake, while ensuring that he stayed in the game for Day 29, caused his ally Jeremiah (or “Jeremy” if you are Tony) to be voted out.

Spencer was able to convince Tony and Woo to help take out Jefra at the next tribal, and two subsequent immunity challenge wins took him to Day 37.

#38 Adam Klein (played on Hannah Shapiro) – Millennials vs. Gen X – Episode 12

38Adam

This tribal council succeeded another historic tribal – the rock draw which saw Jessica depart the game and which set up the events of this night. In Episode 12, the same exact people received votes as the previous tribal, Zeke and Hannah, and despite Adam’s and David’s side losing a number in Jessica, Will became the critical fifth vote for each side of the David-Zeke civil war.

Even though Ken did almost everything to hurt his side’s chances, Will still decided to vote Zeke out. Given the fact that someone from their group went home last time, and that Ken had blown up Will’s game, it made perfect sense for Adam to utilize the idol in this spot. Adam correctly identified Hannah as the target and played his idol on her, but she didn’t need it due to Will flipping his vote. This move is an excellent microcosm of Adam’s game, making good theoretical moves that didn’t work out amazing for him due to one reason or another. But in the end, Adam’s good game sense helped in contrast to the two he sat next to at the final tribal council.

#37 Joe Mena – Heroes vs. Healers vs. Hustlers – Episode 7

37Joe

Another new season, another idol play at the merge. The Healers came into the merge with five players, the Heroes with four, and Hustlers with three. The straightforward play would be for the seven non-Healers to come together and take out a Healer. But the tribe swap complicated things a little bit as Ben and Lauren had agreed to an alliance with Mike, Jessica, and Cole. The Healers just needed either Ben and Lauren to join them to create a tie.

Joe had an idol, and the logical merge threats were Joe and Cole. However, in this day and age of Survivor, it is smart to throw the votes to someone you don’t think would have the idol. The non-Healers decided that would be Jessica. It would have been difficult for Joe to gauge exactly where the vote was going – even if he thought the vote wasn’t going on him; he still had to decide between Cole, Mike, or Jessica (Desi had individual immunity). Also, Joe pulled out the idol at tribal council – very few alliances would put their votes on someone that pulled out an idol during tribal. If Joe didn’t hear any whispers then he had two options: 1) play the idol for one of the three other Healers or 2) save it for another day.

A saving grace of this move is that there was the potential for a 6/6 split. With Desi having the immunity necklace, and the idol played for Joe, the potential rock draw could have been three against five (with the two receiving votes being immune as well). Those are odds that could have easily led to their side walking away with the most numbers after the draw.

#36 Russell Hantz – Heroes vs. Villains – Episode 11

36Russell

Despite what many think, the game wasn’t over for the Heroes after JT was sent home with his own idol in Episode 10. There was a massive opportunity for the Heroes (Colby, Rupert, Candice, and Amanda) to pull in Sandra and vote out a Villain in a 5-4 vote. This opportunity went up in smoke the second that Candice talked with Russell. Russell provided Candice with a chance to vote out Amanda, who she had wanted out since early on, and the offer of going to the end with him. Candice mentioned that Sandra was going to flip on the Villains which, of course, caused Russell to confront the Queen. Sandra promised that she was staying strong with the alliance, before having one final chat with Candice to figure out which way they were going.

At tribal council, the Heroes voted for Parvati as they believed that Russell was more likely to have and play an idol – which he did. Sandra and Candice both stuck with the Villains and voted out Amanda, further rendering Russell’s idol play useless. With Russell’s idol out of play, the castaways remaining could have used the next three tribals to get rid of him, but that didn’t happen, and he made it to his second FTC in a row.

#35 Reynold Toepfer – Caramoan – Episode 4

35Reynold

Here is another rare pre-merge idol play. This tribal council came down to trust versus challenge strength. Reynold and Eddie argued that the tribe wouldn’t win challenges without them, despite the fact that this was their third straight challenge loss. Laura focused on the fact that this was Day 10 and it should be more about who you can trust going forward. Also, she pointed out that in the coming days the tribes could swap, so keeping strong challenge competitors who could end up on an opposing tribe wasn’t necessarily the best idea. In the end, Laura’s argument must have scared Reynold, because he wasted his idol. The idol only negated Laura’s vote while the rest of the tribe wrote her name down.

The funny thing is, with all the talk of challenge strength, it didn’t really matter because this group never went back to tribal together. Brandon infamously had his breakdown in the next episode, and then the tribes were swapped in Episode 6. Reynold’s risk to play the idol was justifiable enough, and he was lucky to find another one which he would also later misplay.

#34 Russell Hantz – Samoa – Episode 8

34Russell

With the significant numbers advantage that the Galu tribe had going into the merge, it made sense that they were hungry to eat one of their own having lived together so long. But Erik never sensed that coming, at least not right at that moment. He had an idol in his pocket, and despite receiving numerous questions from Jeff, Erik didn’t feel persuaded enough to play his idol. Russell, however, on the lower end of the numbers, felt like he had no choice but to play his. After Russell stood up to play his idol, one has to wonder who Erik thought the Foa Foa four were voting for, and yet he did nothing. Going home with an idol in your pocket never looks good (that’s a list for another time!) but this one is truly puzzling.

Russell’s idol did not negate any votes, and although one of his four didn’t go home, Mr. Hantz surely had to be kicking himself. However, this blunder would brilliantly set up his next idol play, which you will see later on this list.

#33 Malcolm Freberg (acquired from Reynold Toepfer) – Caramoan – Episode 9

Malcolm3

“Hold up, bro.” Words that Malcolm might regret, or maybe not. A big threat like Malcolm was always going to be targeted by the alliance of returning players in Caramoan. They even took a preemptive shot at him by targeting his closest ally in Corinne. It was reasonable to assume the hit on him was coming sooner rather than later. When Malcolm hijacked Reynold’s idol and used it on himself, while still voting for Reynold, it was a seriously badass play. Unfortunately, the majority alliance put the votes on Michael, seeing him as a safer option than Reynold or Malcolm. What could have been one of the all-time greatest idol plays, instead came off as a cool but misjudged move.

But on the flip side, if Reynold and Malcolm would have gotten this one right, we would never have had the “Three Amigos” tribal council, so things worked out for the viewers in the long run.

#32 Adam Klein – Millennials v. Gen X – Episode 14

32Adam

This was almost a $1 million blunder for Adam. As the game was getting down to the wire, Adam and Bret voted against the biggest threat to win, David, while Hannah, Ken, and David voted for Bret. Adam had told Hannah about this newly discovered idol, and thus there was very little chance he was going home due if nothing else to the paranoia this created. Hannah was either going to vote with Bret and Adam against David, thereby rendering the idol useless. Or she was going to rally the vote for the person she knew didn’t have the idol, in this case, Bret.

Adam, knowing that he was a target, had no reason to share his idol information with anyone, even Bret, but especially not Hannah. Adam’s loose lips meant that his idol play was for nothing and he ended up losing Bret, rather than being able to take out the biggest threat to his victory, David. Luckily for Adam, David did not win the next immunity challenge, and the group voted him out.

#31 Earl Cole – Fiji – Episode 14

31Earl

As final tribal council was rapidly approaching, this vote came down to Boo versus Dreamz, with Earl not being in danger at all. The entire season, the owner of Earl Island was never at risk of being booted. He was smoothly plotting his way to a near-perfect game (only having a single vote against him and receiving all of the jury votes at FTC). Despite not being in trouble, playing the idol added to Earl’s already stellar resume. Although, it wouldn’t have taken much of a resume to beat the two he was sitting next to in the final three.

Stay tuned to Inside Survivor as we continue Ranking the Survivor Idol Plays throughout the week!


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.



  • Charlie Neilson

    Earl didn’t play the perfect game, he got a vote from Rita pre-merge