Survivor: Ghost Island

Historical Perspectives: Drop Your Bluffs

Andy Pfeiffer travels back into Survivor history to look at idol bluffs.

It’s been done many times. A player in the minority bluffing an idol at Tribal Council is sure to cause paranoia in the majority’s mind. However, pulling it off in a way that works to perfection is nigh impossible – in fact, it’s only been done once. Michael Yerger had some brilliant ideas, but playing his idol in such a manner when there were four potential targets was not one of them. In the end, he let the leader of his alliance walk because of the way he played it at the time he did. After a week of silence to pay respects to the wonderful Morgan Ricke (kidding! Kind of…), today’s edition of Historical Perspectives will focus on what Michael could have learned about playing his idol at Tribal Council.


James Clement (whom henceforth will be referred to as James since James Lim was entirely irrelevant to this episode) played in a time before idols had been flaunted at Tribal Council. His first go was in China, the second season of idols in their true form and fifth overall. He was sitting pretty, believing he was in good with his Fei Long Alliance, but he forgot that every single person in the game knew he had both idols. Not only had his allies helped him find them, but his enemies also found them in his bag and wanted him gone. Amanda Kimmel made it her own idea – and she tipped off minority leader Peih-Gee Law, most likely hoping Todd Herzog would become collateral damage if James were to play an idol. Seeing as this was at the Final 7, it was a deeply stupid mistake for him not to – James had two idols and three rounds to play them, and as a strong physical competitor, he could excel in the late-game challenges. He had no reason to hold onto both, especially given how everyone knew about them.

Even though his situation is in no way comparable to James, Michael was caught up with “reversing the curse” since production was shoving it down his throat. He likely bought into it because although he looks, acts, and lives as if he were 23, he’s still 18 at the end of the day. Despite the maturity, he does not have the life experience of successfully challenging authority. Had he rebelled and not eaten up what production was feeding him, he might have decided to gamble and conserve his idol for another round, even though he is the “big threat lieutenant” alliances like to target in these situations. It would have been gutsy, but if it paid off, it would have paid off huge.


One thing Michael did brilliantly was lie that the idol could save two people – something that fits perfectly with James having left with two idols. Anyone under pressure would follow the logic that the “curse” would involve double immunity. It was a logical, sensible lie that all of Naviti and even Jeff Probst bought. Nobody had the time to deduce that there’s no way the idol at Naviti could have the same power, as James is the only player in Survivor history to leave with two idols in his bag.

While Michael actually playing that idol gave it some respite from its curse, it was unable to save his alliance. Michael knew the two most likely targets were the “big threat lieutenant” (himself) and the “inconspicuous blonde” (Jenna). He decided they’d target the one person that didn’t fit these two criteria and wasn’t the boss: Stephanie. The logic was there. But they targeted the leader, Brendan, which was not something any of the original Malolo group saw coming.


Malcolm Freberg invented the bluff of an idol at Tribal Council – threatening to play it to instigate paranoia and chaos to force an audible on the vote while nobody can hide. This had some inspiration from Sugar Kiper in Gabon and Russell Hantz in Samoa, walking into their respective Final 6 Tribal Councils with idols around their necks. This was when the last time to play an idol was “Day 36” (not “final five”). While Sugar played hers by lateraling it to Matty, reversing its curse, Russell cockily kept his souvenir, which made it a precursor to the bluff.

Malcolm took the Hantz logic a step farther – outright claiming he was going to play it, and not at the final time he could. Since the Caramoan cast had not seen Philippines, he got to invent it twice. His first stunt in Philippines worked unexpectedly, somehow convincing the great Abi-Maria Gomes to also flaunt hers for no reason whatsoever. He let her pin the target upon herself, which led her to play hers. Malcolm never needed to play his, and it now rests upon the mantle of his mother, Madeline.


In Caramoan, after “Hold Up, Bro” had made him the target, Malcolm was literally caught with his hand in the cookie jar by Andrea Boehlke and Dawn Meehan, which allowed him to wear the idol he pulled out of it at Tribal. Nobody knew he was packing another, which he gave to Eddie Fox early in Tribal (note how Eddie is wearing that necklace in a couple shots BEFORE Malcolm is shown giving it to him). His bluff was called by Erik Reichenbach, who was trolling everyone and voted for Phillip with the Three Amigos anyway. While the ensuing fallout of the bluff was a spectacular moment of television, it did not put enough pressure on the rest of the tribe aptly named for Malcolm’s mother. It was a Live Tribal, but the vote changed to Andrea and then back because they had too much time to sort it all out.

After that and Tony Vlachos’ Bag of Tricks in Cagayan, Mike Holloway figured out how to bluff. He recognized that, to maximize the effectiveness of the chaos, Malcolm should’ve waited until the end of Tribal. The opportune time to prove it came when Mike was in a 6-2 hole with his lone ally being the target (Mike was immune). Right after Probst said “Before we vote,” Mike unveiled his idol, threatened to play it on his ally Shirin, and said she was voting for Tyler and he was voting randomly. This was “Survivor Russian Roulette” as coined by Probst, who called for the vote on schedule. A panicked Tyler put two votes (his and the only person he could quickly whisper to) on Dan Foley, but Mike didn’t play his idol. Mike was sharp enough to know that said ally was Shirin, who of course wouldn’t hold grudges for him not playing it recklessly. Mike played the idol on himself at the next Tribal, which, since Dan does hold grudges, sent packing the one person who had beaten him for immunity before his bluff. It worked to perfection and was one of the only good strategic plays Mike made on his trek to the million.


Kaoh Rong brought a twist where two Hidden Immunity Idols could be combined to form a Super Idol, which led Tweedle A and Tweedle B to bluff two idols – their own and one Tai held. They played rock-paper-scissors for no reason, then gave their idol to Tai for Super reasons. Strangely, no idols were played that season, as the bluffs were just intimidation tactics that only served to make people uncomfortable enough to join Aubry and Tai in blindsiding one of the Tweedles delightfully and epically. Since then, the only such occurrence to make air (sorry, Dr. Mike) was in Heroes vs. Healers vs. Hustlers with Ben Driebergen’s bluff being called… leading to him giving his idol to Probst before the vote, preventing anyone from voting for him at all.


The first thing Michael should have remembered is that bluffing an idol is a last resort option intended to cause panic where the rock-solid majority fears for their lives. Malcolm (in Caramoan) and Mike Holloway in Worlds Apart, were just bluffing their idols and Mike proved that when done right, doing so can turn the game on its head. Michael did not do it right. While his lie that the idol could save two people was genius and fitting, he did not disclose who he was saving. By keeping mum, he failed to make Naviti paranoid at all – they let Brendan, Jenna, and Stephanie play Survivor Russian Roulette when Michael should have given Naviti the gun. He could have done so by openly declaring which two he was going to save. Neither of them should have been himself, to retain the trust of his alliance and to increase the likelihood that the audible called would be to the person OTHER than Michael. It takes tremendous guts to try to vote out the person waving the idol around when there are three other ducks to shoot.

The most direct comparison to this would be, yes, the legendary Cagayan merge Tribal, where Tony pulled an idol out of the Bag of Tricks and had a 1-in-4 shot at getting it right (his lapdog had immunity). Tony was the first to stall for time to discern who to play the idol on in front of Probst. It’s notable how the Aparri alliance reacted to Tony pulling the thing out – in the panic Spencer was quick to call an audible to “The Other One.” This reaction notified Tony that the target was not him, which led him to play his idol on LJ, who played his own idol on Tony as a show of loyalty, but “The Other One” was neither – it was inconspicuous blonde Jefra Bland. Not that it mattered. Chaos Kass flipped for fun.


Since Naviti did not react with the Aparri level of fear and panic when Michael produced his idol, just some shocked faces, he had to know they weren’t voting for him. Had he bluffed the idol on Brendan and Stephanie, he could have gauged the panic – the kind that set in when Malcolm pulled out his second idol in Caramoan – on the faces of the others. If they did panic and started whispering, Michael would have a 50/50 chance of guessing right, since it would have been one of those two. If they started whispering without much panic, he would also have a 50/50 chance, figuring the target was neither. No such reaction occurred, meaning it was nothing resembling a Live Tribal.

There’s also the issue of naming the target. Malolo targeted who they were annoyed by, ignoring that Naviti did not hate Bradley the same. Malcolm chose Phillip and not Cochran in Caramoan since he wanted to pick someone the majority would flip on – so he could keep one idol. No such person existed here. Mike Holloway created a variable that made everyone panic by disclosing Shirin’s vote but not his own. Tyler thought if Mike voted for, say, Rodney, it would have been 6-1-1 and an idol play would necessitate a revote – a battle Tyler knew he’d lose. By making it 4-2-1-1, he protected himself for one round but made himself the next target, which was Mike’s goal. In Ghost Island, the numbers wouldn’t allow that – and by only talking to Sebastian and Purple Chelsea, Michael made it so none of Naviti even considered a flip. The two people he asked to flip knew they were safe, so why the heck would they flip to be firmly 5th and 6th? That’s a downgrade! They can blindside Bradley 5-2 after another Malolo leaves.


After this, it’s unlikely that anyone will lie that a single idol has the power to save two people. There’s no other situation where that would be appropriate. This was one of James’ two idols, so it follows the logic of the curse. That one lie cannot be learned from since it was ideal for this situation and this situation only. What we can learn from Michael is what to do and what not to do in similar situations.

What TO do includes prematurely name who you’re saving and turn around and gauge the immediate reactions of your enemies, both when you drop the name and when you play the idol. The latter worked for Joe Mena last season (which this cast had not seen), though he prolonged it longer than should have been allowed – the caveat that allowed David Wright to change his mind once he knew he was wrong during the Million Dollar Gamble. Michael also challenged them directly by speaking to the fans within their hearts. He also came up with a phenomenal circumstantial lie that was highly believable. And turning around and gauging the reaction to verify who to play it on was great – and inarguably the right call, like it was for Tony and Joe. Unfortunately for Malolo, Michael got played by better poker faces.


What NOT to do includes divulging your target carelessly when there’s no benefit of doing so – what if your target were the most likely to flip? It could be the in you need to turn the others against them in the next vote. And, frankly, bluffing the idol at Tribal is a last-resort option – one would hope that a scene of Michael trying to get a feel for who Naviti was targeting hit the cutting room floor and that he knew it was a last resort scenario. He most likely recognized that showing the idol to anyone from Naviti before Tribal was bound to get them to blab to the others. It’s all situational, and Michael probably made the right move for his situation. He even fooled Jeff Probst – impressive for a teenager!

Going forward, Michael didn’t help himself – or Malolo. In fact, given how he failed to drive a wedge between them, it’s unlikely that the Naviti group will fracture and they’re likely to target the person they’re most scared of – and that’s Michael. They might also feel Sebastian is getting too cozy with Jenna and that might pin the target on her. Malolo needs two people to flip or another idol. And it’s no doubt the three of them will go treasure hunting again. What’s next – they find the Charred Shell Idol of Lauren Rimmer or the F***ing Stick of Jason Siska? Survivor history buffs can’t wait to see!

Written by

Andy Pfeiffer

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.

4 responses to “Historical Perspectives: Drop Your Bluffs”

  1. “…was one of the only good strategic plays Mike made on his trek to the million.” That is very false. He set himself as the blue collar swing vote and leader of the majority alliance. By throwing a challenge it saved his closest ally, and created a tribal council where his two biggest immunity threats would be the ones getting votes. Do not think for a second he could have won five immunities if he competed against Joaquin. He found the idol without the hint by studying where Joe looked. He removed his biggest physical threat at final 5.

    • The problem I have with your statement is that every single time Mike won immunity, he needed it. And while he kept Jenn and Hali as an option – that’s why they didn’t target him with their idol – he did not keep his own allies loyal to him through constant poor decision-making. Taking out Joaquin only made Rodney bloodthirsty and had he not done that, sure, he might not have won one of those immunities, but Rodney wouldn’t have been so gung-ho about getting Mike out – and if Mike took out Joaquin around final 9, he’d still be able to beast his way to the end. Throwing the challenge to save Kelly Remington from certain doom was Rodney’s idea which Mike agreed to. I don’t give Mike much credit for that.

      Retrieving that idol was another of the very few good strategic decisions Mike made, especially since it protected him. But many of his decisions were poor and only served to make his target huge – big enough that he had to win five immunity challenges to keep himself alive. That’s not the sign of a good winner. Now, I’m not saying other winners that won a lot of immunities are necessarily bad (Kim Spradlin won four and she played the single most dominant game in the show’s history) – it’s whether or not they were needed. A good winner only needs immunity to save their butt once at most and will use that protection to turn the game around so they don’t need it at the next Tribal. Mike did nothing of the sort.

      And FFSDT was far from his biggest physical threat. Joe, Tyler, and even Mama C all beat him in challenges, the former two before Mike’s bluff. Rodney was jacked at the start of the game, but by Day 30, he was falling apart physically and mentally.

  2. There is one other idol that could have been used as a double-protection idol – and it is indeed the one on the other beach!

    In Caramoan, before Andrea possessed that idol, it was Malcolm’s. He used it to protect Eddie while using his original idol for himself, but despite successfully voting out Phillip, he was then voted out at the next Tribal Council. Had this idol been able to protect both of them, Malcolm would have been able to keep his original idol – so this could definitely be framed as a reversible curse.

    • The idol specifically was stated to be Andrea’s; even though it was the same exact item Malcolm had wielded days before, there is no “curse” related to how Malcolm played both. Malcolm’s plan worked brilliantly in the short-term and that one result was highly influential on later players like Mike (who learned that the idol reveal should be right before the vote). It would be a really hard sell, especially to someone like Bradley, to say it was Malcolm’s idol was cursed since he got voted out after playing it. “Wait… how did it curse him if he no longer had it?”

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