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Hold Up, Jeff: Ranking the Survivor Idol Plays (50-41)


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

Idols, idols, idols. Idols everywhere. The most recent season, Survivor: Heroes vs. Healers vs. Hustlers, featured an unprecedented NINE hidden immunity idols over the course of the season, seven of which were played. Whether we like them or not, there is no denying idols are a huge part of the game and only becoming more prevelant in modern seasons. Since its first introduction in Survivor: Guatemala, the hidden immunity idol has drastically changed the game of Survivor, helping to shift alliances, blindside power players, and create chaotic tribal councils.

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.

Enjoy the countdown!

Honorable Mention:

Gary Hogeboom – Guatemala – Episode 9

It’s difficult to rank Gary among the other players given that the rules were so different back then. When the idol was first introduced in Guatemala, it had to be played BEFORE the votes were cast. It didn’t require Gary to predict whether he’d received the majority of votes or not. There was no real urgency or strategy around this type of idol, hence why the rules were subsequently changed. But Gary deserves credit for being the first person in Survivor history to find an idol at least.

#50 David Wright (played on Ken McNickle) – Millennials vs. Gen X – Episode 10

50David

The title of this episode was the “Million Dollar Gamble” and boy was it for so many of the players. In this historic tribal council, the battle between David and Zeke began with each side having five numbers apiece. David’s alliance put their votes on Zeke, while Zeke’s group put their votes on Hannah. After the voting, David stood up to play his idol for himself but was instructed to play the idol for Ken by Adam. Hannah had lobbied hard for the idol to be played on her while on the beach, and told David to “wait” as he walked over to Jeff Probst, but David didn’t listen.

If David had listened to Hannah, this would have been a Top 15 move, but instead, it sits at #50, last on the list. With each side staying firm on the revote, not only was Ken safe from a vote-off but was immune from the rock draw. This was a big miscalculation by David having played the idol incorrectly and doing it in a situation where he knew that a rock draw was very likely. In the end, David survived the rock draw, although one of his numbers, Jessica, did not.

#49 Tyson Apostol – Blood v. Water – Episode 11

49Tyson

This episode saw the large alliance – that together had voted out huge returning players, including two former winners – finally split up. This tribal council saw Tyson, Gervase and Monica picking between voting out Caleb (with Ciera) or voting out Ciera (with Hayden, Caleb and Katie). After speaking with Hayden and Caleb, Tyson got the feeling that he was being targeted despite the guys telling him they wanted to vote out Ciera. Tyson was wrong, and the two men were telling him the truth. Things got worse for Tyson because this move kickstarted the craziness at the next tribal. His lack of trust in Ciera, which made him play the idol, persuaded her to make a big move and go to rocks. Episode 11 and 12 were huge obstacles on Tyson’s path to the end, and he was lucky to make it out of Episode 12 alive. However, he survived and went onto win the game.

P.S. – to Tyson’s credit, this was one of the funnier idol uses, with him not being able to find the idol in his bag and eventually emptying it out onto the ground.

#48 Mike Zahalsky – Heroes vs. Healers vs. Hustlers – Episode 9

48Mike

The previous two tribal councils saw Healers depart the game, and in this episode, the Round Table alliance debated which Healer (Mike, Joe or Cole) should be next. Mike was in a pretty good spot being hidden between two very big threats. But the sex doctor put on a show at tribal in an effort to put a target on his back, but his idol only negated two votes while Cole received seven and was eliminated.

What leaves you scratching your head about this move is that Joe and Mike both voted for Cole. If Mike was correct in his assumption that he was the one receiving the majority of votes, then his idol play still would have likely sent Cole home – his only other Healer ally besides Joe. Strategically, if you are willing to cut Cole loose, then the better move here is just to vote Cole with Joe and save the idol for a more opportune time. Or if he was determined to play the idol, then at the very least all three Healers should have voted the same way to try and take out a member of the opposing alliance.

#47 Tony Vlachos and LJ McKanas (played on each other) – Cagayan – Episode 7

47LJTOny

In a very exciting merge episode, we saw Sarah in the middle of two warring alliances. One side consisted of the former Brains (Kass, Spencer, and Tasha) plus Morgan and Jeremiah, and on the other side, the former Brawn trio (Trish, Tony, Woo) with LJ and Jefra. Sarah had decided to go with the former Aparri tribe but her inflexibility to vote out Trish, who Kass wanted gone, caused conflict. Sarah called herself the “president” and saw herself as the ultimate decision-maker. She wanted to take out a huge threat in the game, like Tony or LJ. Sarah even made a huge misstep during the strategic conversations by saying, “I can guarantee that Tony does not have an idol.” The Iowa cop became so inflexible that Kass took over her position in the middle of the two sets of five. Trish did an excellent job of observing the rift between the two women and let Kass vote out the person she wanted to take out, Sarah.

At tribal council, Tony was still the target until he pulled out his idol. Seeing the idol in Tony’s possession caused the former Aparri to verbalize that they were voting for “the other one.” Tony believed that “the other one” was LJ and played the idol for the former Beauty member. LJ, in turn, covered Tony’s back with an idol of his own. Between the four people eligible on their side (Woo had immunity, and Kass likely wasn’t going to get votes), they essentially had a 50/50 chance of using the two idols correctly – they guessed wrong by playing them on their two strongest members. Once Tony pulled out the idol before the votes, the former Aparri did a great job of identifying a person that was least likely to have an idol or have an idol played on them, Jefra.

Tony got lucky that his misplay before the votes didn’t cost him the game. It worked out at this tribal council,  and he’d go on to find a Super Idol and play a crazy, entertaining game on his way to $1 million.

#46 Ozzy Lusth (played on Whitney Duncan) – South Pacific – Episode 8

46Ozzy

This was another classic merge episode with two sides battling it out and an idol in the middle of it all. Going into this tribal, Savaii held the advantage with Ozzy and Dawn winning individual immunity and Ozzy also holding the hidden idol. With Cochran being the possible person to jump ship, it would have been unlikely that Upolu would have voted for him. That meant the vote would only be for Whitney, Jim or Keith. When Ozzy stood up to play the idol, he had a 33% chance of playing it correctly, avoiding the re-vote and possible rocks. What Ozzy did not know was that Cochran had relayed the person that was going to get the idol (Whitney) to Sophie and thus Upolu. Accordingly, the votes were never going to be on Whitney, and Keith received the votes.

Knowing that Cochran was waffling between the sides, and that he was going to talk with Upolu, Ozzy should have considered changing who he gave the idol to during the tribal council. If they had gone to rocks, five Upolu (all minus Rick) and two Savaii (Cochran & Jim) would have been eligible to leave the game. Ultimately, Cochran did not trust those odds and flipped on the revote. If Cochran didn’t change sides, Ozzy likely wins Survivor: South Pacific.

#45 Alex Angarita – Fiji – Episode 10

45Alex

This was the first modern era hidden immunity idol that was played in Survivor. This would serve as a lesson for seasons to come for majority alliances on how to handle a minority alliance with an idol. The majority knew that either Alex or Mookie had the idol and that they would likely play it on either of themselves. Knowing that they might be able to flush the idol, while also getting one of the minority alliance’s numbers out of the game, they picked someone unlikely to get the idol, Edgardo.

This would also serve as a lesson about who you tell about having an idol. Mookie and Alex’s downfall was their trusting of Dreamz with vital information. As this idol did not negate any votes, it has the dubious title of being the first failed hidden immunity idol used in Survivor.

#44 Ralph Kiser (played on Mike Chiesel) – Redemption Island – Episode 8

44Ralph

Another merge episode, another great opportunity to take over the game if you can play an idol correctly. Coming into the merge, Ometepe had six and Zapatera had five, with Matt in the middle. Matt and Andrea had conversations about jumping over to Zapatera, but Matt came clean to Rob about this plan. Of course, this didn’t sit well with the Robfather at all.

For the Zapatera, they saw it just as Matt was in the middle and that Ometepe was going to put a vote on one of them. From their points of view, it made sense for them to use the idol at this tribal council. Rob’s Ometepe instead voted for Matt and sent the “poor kid” back to Redemption Island in a “genius” move. Zapatera were picked off one by one, and Rob eventually became the Sole Survivor.

#43 Kristina Kell – Redemption Island – Episode 2

43Kristina

This is the earliest an idol has been played in Survivor history. At the first tribal council, Kristina was aware that her tribe knew she had the idol but risked not playing it and it worked. After getting three votes and seeing the only person that voted with her depart the game, Kristina knew that she couldn’t risk doing that again. The sad thing is, she could have.

Instead of aiming for Kristina, Rob turned on one of his own, Matt, and Kristina’s idol only negated two votes. If she was able to stay strong, she could have used her idol two tribals later where she was ultimately targeted and voted out of the game. The fourth tribal council was also the last time that Ometepe lost an immunity challenge before the merge.

#42 Ryan Ulrich – Heroes vs. Healers vs. Hustlers – Episode 11

42Ryan

In Episode 10 of the most recent season, we saw Lauren, Devon, Ashley, and Ben create a temporary alliance with Mike and Joe to blindside JP (as well as Chrissy & Ryan). Ben went undercover to act as if he was not in on the plan, so that he could obtain information from Chrissy and Ryan. Due to the Secret Spy plan, Chrissy and Ryan had every reason to believe the vote would either be one of them or Ben. Chrissy stated in a conversation with the two men that the majority alliance would be smart to vote out Ben. That conversation between the three ended with Ryan declaring that everyone knew that he had the idol. It would have been genius for Ben to push for Ryan to use the idol on him, but instead Ben encouraged Ryan to use it on himself.

In the end, Ryan thought there was a 1/3rd shot that he was going home and he decided to play the idol, which negated only two votes (the votes of Mike and Joe). It is surprising that he used it for himself considering his two (supposed) alliance members were much bigger threats, and everyone knew Ryan was the one with the idol. Ryan did luck out, and Joe was voted out by the alliance of four.

#41 Troyzan Robertson – One World – Episode 9

41Troy

Coming into this tribal council with ten players still in the game, Jay believed that he was in an alliance with Kim, Chelsea, and Sabrina. However, his closest ally, Troyzan, realized as the day went on that the girls were going to pick off the guys if they had it their way. Troyzan’s biggest mistake in this episode was telling Jay that he had the idol. Jay, still believing he had an alliance with the girls, relayed that information to Kim.

If Troyzan didn’t tell anyone about his idol, played it for himself and voted with Lief and Jay, then he would have canceled the votes against him, and Alicia would have gone home. Instead, the vote shifted to Jay, and Troyzan was only able to negate two votes. Ultimately, the biggest mistake Troyzan made was trusting Kim on the two previous votes.

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.