It’s time once again to update the Inside Survivor Winner Rankings. Since the list was last updated, in fall 2015, we’ve had two new winners, Michele Fitzgerald, who took the crown in Survivor: Kaoh Rong, and Adam Klein, who rose to victory in Survivor: Millennials Vs. Gen X. It’s always hard to judge recent winners, but I’ve tried to be as fair as possible, putting their games into context and judging on the same criteria as I did everyone else: strategy, social, control and overall awareness. Also, on reevaluating the list some winners have moved up or down, this is often based on looking deeper into the games and rewatching seasons.
As always, this list is purely subjective and I’m of the belief that anyone who won deserved to win. There is no such thing as a “bad winner.”
Former professional boxer Joe Calzaghe retired undefeated in his sport with 46 fights and 46 wins. But when the topic of the best fighters of all time is brought up, Calzaghe’s name is often shunted aside. Why? Well, some say that Calzaghe didn’t fight enough big-name fighters. He spent the majority of his career fighting in Europe rather than traveling to the US where at the time the competition in his weight division was of a higher standard. And his wins, while convincing, were unmemorable and often point based. Calzaghe just wasn’t a flashy or aggressively dominant fighter.
Why is he yapping on about boxing you may be wondering? Well, because many of the criticisms that are leveled at Joe Calzaghe could just as easily be applied to two-time Survivor champion Sandra Diaz-Twine. Like Calzaghe, Sandra is also undefeated in her sport – the sport of Survivor. But because her game lacks the showmanship and razzmatazz of other winners, she is often unfairly maligned. However, unlike Joe Calzaghe, who has to be ranked against many other undefeated fighters in his field, in the world of Survivor, there is only returning one undefeated champion. That is why, despite the criticisms, I have to rank Sandra as the best winner of all time.
Nobody has mastered the “as long as it’s not me” strategy quite as well as Sandra. Intentionally playing under-the-radar, Sandra was always aware of her own position within the game. She followed the numbers; making herself a viable asset to the dominating alliance. Her social game was impeccable; a mixture of brash honesty and foul-mouthed humor that gave her an alluring charm in a game full of deception and lies. Sandra didn’t need to play aggressively. She made herself necessary when it counted (ousting Burton in Pearl Islands), and took a back-seat when it was time to let others take the heat.
Sandra’s reads are one of her biggest strengths. In Heroes vs. Villains, she read Russell like a book. She used his ego and paranoia to help vote out Coach and later recognized the animosity towards him as her winning tool. Russell stated at Final Tribal Council that Sandra’s failure to get rid of him was a mark against her, but what he was too foolish to realize was that by pitting herself as his arch-nemesis, Sandra warmed herself to the Heroes tribe (who made up the majority of the jury). Sandra knew she didn’t have to talk about big moves or the intricacies of her strategy, she correctly read the room, and knew that by highlighting the Heroes’ failure to help her vote out Russell would be enough to secure their votes.
Sandra isn’t a leader. She isn’t the one to create alliances. But that’s because Sandra plays for Sandra. She always makes the best move for her, and two times out of two, it’s a winning formula.
Some players come to Survivor with potential, but it takes them multiple seasons to perfect their strategy and win, take Boston Rob and Tyson Apostol for example. Then there are those that come to the game with a few smarts and a little bit of luck and make it all the way to the end their first time out. And then there is Kim Spradlin, a woman so naturally fitted for Survivor that you’d think Mark Burnett built her himself.
While I don’t mean to infer that Kim is a robot, that description is kind of apt for the Terminator-like precision she played with in the game. Many have talked up the sheer dominance of Boston Rob’s performance in Survivor: Redemption Island, and while it was indeed impressive, it was also his fourth attempt. Just two seasons later Kim displayed the same dominance on her first attempt. From the very start, Kim was in control of a solid five-person alliance, but she never acted like an overbearing dictator (see Colton on the opposing tribe). She listened, she comforted, she reassured, and she ultimately had those people doing whatever she wanted them to do.
Kim was an impressive challenge performer; winning four Individual Immunities. She had a solid social game, and throughout the season was a clear threat. She used her powers of persuasion and manipulation to keep the target off her. During a tribe switch, herself and Chelsea created a separate alliance with Jay and Troyzan as a backup plan and used those ties to maintain a majority for the women at the merge. Once Jay and Troyzan had served their purpose, Kim cut them. Her style of play was methodical, surgical even; you can imagine her and TV serial killer Dexter getting along quite well. Any unpredictability would be quickly nipped in the bud; hence her blindside of alliance member Kat.
Similarly to Sandra, Kim’s game wasn’t the most flashy. She didn’t play a bunch of idols or constantly tell the world how great she was. She just made smart moves and got herself to the end. One World itself is a predictable and mostly poor season, and therefore it can be easy to sell Kim’s game short. Certain critics also say that her competition was weak, but I take little notice of that argument. The players don’t choose who is in the cast with them, and the majority of players in first-timer seasons are generally ill-prepared for the game. Kim was so good that she would make any cast look dumb in comparison.
Kim is the best one-time player without question. She ran her alliance like a well-oiled machine, making adjustments here and there, and disregarding broken parts when they had become useless.
James “J.T.” Thomas
It’s a shame that the fondest memory of JT these days is his infamous letter sent to Russell on Heroes vs. Villains which was cruelly scrutinized by that cackling hyena Parvati. Yes, his handing over the idol was a big blunder, but within the context of the game it did seem like a viable option and was not nearly as embarrassing as it’s often purported. What JT should be remembered for is his unimpeachable social game and Jesus like walk to victory in Tocantins.
JT’s social game was so strong in Tocantins that he had other players sabotaging their own games to help him make it further. He effortlessly oozed charm and charisma and used those qualities to build trust and alliances, both within his own tribe and the opposing tribe. Stephen Fishbach, traditionally perceived as the brains of the outfit, has stated in numerous interviews that his alliance with JT was a partnership, and all strategic decisions were made together. JT was a ruthless player that was able to hide behind his Southern charm.
It requires a great deal to not only be a tough, physical competitor but a masterful social player. On top of that, JT had a secure grasp on the strategic aspects of the game too which is immensely impressive. JT was the first player to play a “perfect game”; not having a single vote cast against him all season and winning with a unanimous jury vote. Cochran is the only other player to have achieved this feat and it took him a second attempt.
I have moved JT up the list since my last ranking. More credit needs to be given for his “perfect game” and the way he overcame a severe numbers deficit at the merge. The control he had over people was awe-inspiring. Even in Heroes vs. Villains, he was controlling his tribe, and if he hadn’t have given away his idol, then there is a serious chance he could have won again.
“If you’re committed enough, you can make any story work. I once told a woman I was Kevin Costner, and it worked because I believed it.” That quote comes from shady lawyer Saul Goodman from Breaking Bad/Better Call Saul. A self-confessed sleaze who shouldn’t be trusted, yet in spite of his misgivings is very good at his job. Now, imagine those same words coming out the mouth of Brian Heidk. If Brian told me he was Kevin Costner, I’d believe him, and so would you. Brian Heidk is the Saul Goodman of Survivor.
A former used-car salesman, Brian described his time on Survivor as a “business trip,” and that is exactly how he approached the game. Brian made everyone feel like he was their friend. He created fake bonds and false promises and claimed that the season was “all about love.” He had his alliance so wrapped up in his web of lies, each of them believing they were the one that Brian wanted to take to the Final 2, that they were almost too scared to make a move against him. It was similar to how Boston Rob controlled Redemption Island, except Brian did it on his first try.
Much like One World, as a season, Thailand is often criticized as predictable and unlikable. I think this is simply an unfortunate by-product of when a player is so comfortably in control. They not only suck the life from their fellow players but they suck the life from the season itself. Brian doesn’t get many points for entertainment, or likability, but his skillful manipulation of Survivor Thailand is unquestionable. His keeping the weaker players around also meant he could dominate the Immunity challenges.
What keeps Brian from breaking into the Top 3 is the fact that he almost ended up losing to Clay in the Final 2. Clay was one of the biggest goats in Survivor history and Brian been one vote away from defeat puts his social game somewhat into question.
It’s always a joy to watch a superfan come on Survivor and not only prove likable but actually succeed in the game. Todd was just 22 years old when he competed on Survivor: China. As a huge fan of the show it would have been easy for him to become overwhelmed much like fellow superfan Erik in Micronesia or Cochran on South Pacific. But Todd took to Survivor like he had been preparing for it his whole life.
While there was a professional poker player on the season, it was Todd who displayed the expert tells. He knew how to influence people by appealing to the most malleable facets of their character. Whether it be their ego, their intelligence, or even their belief system, Todd had a canny ability to find common ground with anyone no matter their background. His solid social game and approachable nature was so on point that other players were physically handing him clues to the whereabouts of hidden immunity idols – yet Todd never had to use an idol to save himself.
Todd was in control of every Tribal Council he attended, always on the right side of the votes, and was a key player in numerous blindsides. His handing over of two idols to James could have proved a crucial error, but Todd was confident in his ability to control James and if need be get those idols back. He never did, though, as he voted James out with both idols in his pocket. He loses a couple of points for receiving five votes against him, and although his Final Tribal Council performance is one of the all-time best, he did lose three votes due to his deceitful gameplay.
It has been well documented that Todd has recently gone through some hardships in his life, and I hope he can recover, not only because he is one of the nicest players Survivor has ever seen and deserves to live a happy, healthy life, but because he is someone that should have the chance to play Survivor again and prove why he’s one of the best.
With her overall stats, it is hard to deny Parvati a spot in the top ten. In her first season, Cook Islands, she finished in 6th place, and while her game lacked maturity, she was arguably the best positioned to win out of the former Rarotonga tribe. In her second season, Micronesia, she obviously won after an impressive game. And her third return in Heroes vs Villains she was runner-up. Those stats don’t lie.
Parvati is often considered a “flirt”, but to boil her strategy down to that is to criminally downplay how nuanced and intricate her gamesmanship is. Parvati played Survivor like an expert chess champion, constantly thinking two moves ahead. Whether it was her blindside of Ozzy, or playing her two idols for Jerri and Sandra, she always put herself in a position of control. Her charm and confidence inspired loyalty. Whether this was overt like her control of the female alliance in Micronesia, or more subtle like her behind-the-scenes maneuvering of Russell in Heroes vs Villains.
Some people believe that had there not been a sudden switch from a Final 3 to a Final 2, due to James’s medical evacuation, then Cirie would have won Micronesia. While I’m inclined to agree with that, we will never know for sure. Regardless, I think Parvati’s subsequent performance on Heroes vs Villains cemented her legacy. Every Tribal Council that Parvati attended in Micronesia she voted for the person that went home, she only had 4 votes against her the entire game and was also a competent challenge performer.
Parvati is a natural at Survivor. She is one of the game’s best manipulators; her tells and ability to read a situation are scarily perceptive. I’m not sure if Parvati will ever play again, but if she does, I’d put money on her finding a way to go deep.
If Earl Cole had played on nearly any other season of Survivor he would be heralded as one of the show’s all-time great winners. Unfortunately for Earl, he played on Fiji, a season wrought with flaws and perhaps rightfully forgotten about in the minds of many Survivor fans. But Earl himself shouldn’t be forgotten about; he played one of the smoothest and smartest games in a season full of combustible personalities and unfair twists.
What should also be remembered about Earl is that he was recruited just two days before filming began, having little to no knowledge of Survivor. Now it is easy as fans to bash recruits, but it isn’t Earl’s fault that the producers wanted him on the show, and the fact he played so well makes his win doubly impressive. Earl’s game was slick. He led his alliance with a silent confidence, keeping the clashing personalities in check, and recruiting new alliance members when he was in danger of losing numbers.
Earl’s game is actually very similar to JT’s. They both played their respective seasons with a strong partnership – JT with Stephen and Earl with Yau-Man. They were both incredibly well-liked by their fellow players, and they both won with a unanimous jury vote – although Earl had one vote against him early on in the season whereas JT was never voted against. The key difference is the challenges, Earl didn’t perform particularly well, however he was on the Ravu tribe whom due to the twist of the season were at a severe disadvantage. His failure to win individual Immunity could be held against him but it also makes his cruise to the finals even more notable.
Earl was a natural leader that applied his skills in business into a working Survivor strategy. There is an argument to be made that if Dreamz didn’t renege on his deal, and Yau-Man made the finals, that Yau-Man would have walked out with the $1 million check, but if you start to play the “what if?” game you could be here forever.
⤊ MOVED UP ONE
Update: After rewatching Cagayan last year, Tony’s game seemed even more impressive than I remembered. How he was able to play such a full throttle, cut-throat game and win is extremely rare and should be applauded, hence moving Tony up one in the ranking.
John Forbes Nash Jr. was a Nobel Prize winning mathematician that was widely recognized for his contributions to the concept of game theory. Nash was also diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and spent his life in and out of hospitals. He is what we would affectionately refer to as a “mad genius”. Now, I’m not saying Tony Vlachos is a genius, but his own contributions to Survivor game theory could be classified in a similar bracket.
Tony’s style of play was more Johnny Depp than John Nash; erratic and blustering. But there was without doubt method to the madness. You can choose to play this game methodical and low-risk, like Kim or Brian, or you can instead perform it like a high-wire juggling act. The majority of the time, that latter style of play is a surefire way to get yourself booted. But if you can play with that much gusto and pull it off, then you deserve extra kudos, and so Tony those kudos are yours.
John Nash believed that rationality of thought put limits on a person, that in fact irrationality and paranoia allowed for thinking outside the box. Tony definitely thought outside the box. Whether it was his Spy Shacks or Bag of Tricks, Tony was constantly thinking. At times he would over-think. Yet he always made the right move and was never on the wrong side of the vote. His paranoia caused him to blindside LJ. Even though that could have been a risk, Tony’s ability to lie so convincingly made sure the vote went off without a hitch, and it ended up benefiting him in the long run. His experience as a cop gave him the capacity to read people extremely well (knowing Sarah was a cop, his distrust of Tasha), and his timing of blindsides was near perfect.
Tony was an aggressive player but not at the expense of a social game. He got on well with most of his tribemates; of course, it was his relationships with Trish and Woo that helped him hurtle towards the end. The matter of him having the “Tyler Perry” idol is always going to knock him down a couple of points; but a player can’t be blamed for the inclusion of a power, only how they use it. Tony used just the mere threat of that idol to create a constant sense of fear. His impact on the future of Survivor gameplay also speaks to his win.
⤋ MOVED DOWN ONE
As a fan of the game, I put much more weight on strategy and social scheming than I do the challenges. But to completely neglect the physical portion of Survivor would be to do a disservice to the unequivocal superiority of Tom Westman. Tom is a born-leader, Survivor’s very own Coach Taylor, inspiring his tribemates to give it their all. Clear Eyes. Full Hearts. Can’t Lose. And they didn’t lose. Tom led the most successful tribe in Survivor history; winning every single pre-merge Immunity Challenge.
But if Tom was simply a great challenge performer he wouldn’t be this high up the list. Terry Deitz was a great challenge performer too but he lacked the social skills required to make it to the end. Tom was not only a powerhouse in challenges but he was an amiable and charismatic figure. This allowed him to gain the trust of his fellow players, even when under the surface what he was doing was actually quite ruthless. Like all the best players, Tom stayed one step ahead of the competition, sniffing out his threats and disposing of them before they got him first – for example, his voting out Coby and Greg.
Tom’s crowning achievement in Palau was using his likability and false sense of integrity to convince his biggest competition, Ian, into throwing the Final Immunity Challenge. In what is one of the most famous challenges in Survivor history, Tom displayed both his physical prowess and his savvy intuition in a move that perfectly summed up his game.
It’s unfortunate Tom wasn’t able to recapture former glory during his short-lived stint on Heroes vs. Villains, but his first winning game is up there with the best.
I think for long-time Survivor fans there is a propensity to look back on the earlier seasons and players through a nostalgic gaze; especially as it pertains to the legacy of original winner Richard Hatch. I’m guilty of this myself, once placing Richard at No. 2 on this list principally out of respect for his pioneering strategy. But just because he was the first doesn’t mean he was the best. When Olivetti produced the first desktop personal computer it was “good”, but it isn’t the best – it isn’t as fast, functional and efficient as the latest model.
But you still have to acknowledge the Programma 101 for laying down the foundation of what computers would become in the future. In that same sense, you have to recognize the blueprint that was put down by Richard in Borneo. Without his strategic thinking and cut-throat mentality, it is arguable whether Survivor would have lasted this long. Richard created the first true alliance, controlling a four-person voting bloc that picked off the competition one by one, and he did it with such confidence and bravado.
Richard had what I consider to be two major moves that cement his place in the Top 10. The first demonstrated his ability to adapt and the second showed incredible foresight and was way ahead of its time. The first move was using Sean’s “alphabet strategy” (Sean was voting for people in alphabetical order) to his advantage after Kelly decided to break off from the Tagi 4 alliance – Richard knew they still needed four votes to control who went home and he worked around a bad situation. His second was his decision to step down in the Final 3 Immunity challenge, recognizing that Kelly and Rudy would both take him to the end.
Over the years Richard’s strategy has been adapted and perfected by, in my opinion, better players, which is why I can’t rank him quite so high anymore. After all, he did only beat Kelly by one single vote, with his blunt social game almost costing him the $1 million. But on the flip-side, I can’t justifiably leave him out of the Top 10, because he did invent the template for how to play Survivor.
Regardless of the public reception to San Juan del Sur and its lack of big time players, there can be no denying that it gave birth to a shrewd Survivor player that carefully picked her moments and knew how to execute a plan with aplomb. That player was Natalie Anderson.
For the early portion of the game, Natalie remained relatively under-the-radar; a seemingly conscious response to her twin Nadiya getting voted out first on the opposing tribe. Her every decision, no matter how minor, was thought of in the context of the game. From volunteering to go to Exile Island, to giving up rewards, to telling Jon to play his idol. Natalie had a pulse on the dynamics and was able to think quick on her feet. Her control and big move plays in the latter half of the game was some of the most ballsy Survivor gameplay ever. It’s enough to make Parvati proud, and Natalie is the most Parvati-like player not named Parvati.
She was crafty: going her own way at Tribal Council (the Alec vote), performing for the jury (giving her idol to Jaclyn), and making sure she was the center of every alliance. The reason I place her below Tony, another recent flashy winner, is because Natalie was blindsided by the Jeremy vote and Tony was never caught off guard like that. But Natalie recovered from that position effortlessly, and even in plotting her revenge on Jon, she never let that cloud her judgment, she waited for the most opportune moment.
Natalie never received a vote against her at Tribal Council and scooped up the majority of the jury votes (and if it wasn’t a loved ones season I expect she would have won by an even higher margin) which is a testament to her brilliant social game. Her game remains just as strong on reflection today as it did when we first witnessed it in 2014.
⤊ MOVED UP ONE
Update: I’m often unfair on Yul because of the god idol and all the twists in Cook Islands, but Yul played an incredibly smart game with or without twists. I felt he deserved to be bumped up a space, above Jeremy who took two tries to win.
Cook Islands is remembered more these days for its controversial race divide twist and spawning the famous future returnees Parvati, Ozzy and Jonathan Penner (and to a lesser degree Candice Cody). The winner of that season, the smart and methodical Yul Kwon, has somewhat fallen into the background as the years have passed by. Even by my own admission, I sometimes overlook Yul due to my dislike of Cook Islands as a season.
Yul played a thinking man’s game of Survivor – logical, clean and focused. Basically, a reverse Tony Vlachos. You could argue that Yul was never truly in danger due to him finding the all-too-powerful Hidden Immunity Idol early in the game; the idol that could be used after the votes are read (brought back as the “Tyler Perry” idol in Cagayan). But again, you can’t fault the player for a production decision. Yul could have sat back and snoozed his way to the end but instead, he actively participated in the game, becoming the key decision maker of his alliance, and using his idol to his advantage. Best exemplified when he used the idol to get Penner to flip at the merge.
His challenge performances were respectable, even in a season that featured challenge supremo Ozzy, and he led the Aitutaki tribe to numerous victories even despite their severe numbers disadvantage. The twist heaviness of Cook Islands taints the win ever so slightly, as many of those twists went in the favor of the “Aitu 4”. But to hold that completely against Yul would be silly. What is more glaring is that Yul almost lost to Ozzy, whom despite his physical abilities, was desperately lacking in strategy or real social game.
⤋ MOVED DOWN ONE
Jeremy was able to come out on top in what was one of the most strategic seasons of Survivor ever. Not only that but he was competing against tried and tested second-time players who were all playing to win. He was able to get to the end without his name ever coming up at tribal council until the Final 6. That speaks to a very good social game and is a testament to his “meat-shield” strategy. He also found two hidden idols and used them both correctly.
He swept all the jury votes, at the time the most in history due to the ten-person jury (now matched by Adam). That almost gives Jeremy a “perfect game,” although he technically had three votes against him that were nullified by an idol. Where he loses points is that there were a couple of moments post-merge where he was blindsided (the Stephen vote) or incorrect in his assumptions (believing Kimmi was still with him). It doesn’t take away from his impressive win but he was out of the loop more frequently than the winners above him. It also took him his second go to win, although his pre-merge game in SJDS was very solid.
Adapting to a fast paced game with shifting alliances and managing to win with a unanimous vote puts Jeremy in the top half of this list.
⤊ ⤊ MOVED UP TWO
Update: I’ve always tied Denise, Danni, and Chris together as underdog winners that clawed their way to victory, and in the past I’ve put Denise below the other two because of how she had a close ally in Malcolm, whereas Danni and Chris mostly worked solo. But after rewatching Philippines, I was reminded just how impressive Denise was at finding a way to survive EVERY SINGLE TRIBAL COUNCIL. For that alone she deserves to move up the ranking.
The only Survivor winner to have attended every single tribal council of her season, Denise not only managed to stay in the game but eventually won it by a clear majority vote. Nobody else in the history of Survivor can say they were put in the position to be voted out as many times as Denise. You could argue that that was a flaw in Denise’s game, that a great winner should never find themselves in a position to be voted out, but anyone that can avoid the chop that many times is doing something right in my book. Also, a lot of her tribal council visits were due to terrible challenge performances by her tribe.
So what was Denise doing right? Well, she had a killer social game, a strong work ethic, and a sound mind. It’s what kept her as one of only two remaining members of the terrible Matsing tribe. It’s what helped her integrate into Kalabaw when she joined their tribe. And it’s what allowed her to form bonds with numerous players which gave her the ability to pick and choose between alliances come the merge. Denise had great timing; knowing when to make a switch and when to hold tight. She was only technically on the wrong side of the votes once, the other two times were intentional split-vote scenarios in attempts to flush out idols.
⤋ MOVED DOWN ONE
So far on this list, the majority of winners featured are players that had early control of the game and never let that up throughout the season. That is impressive and it’s why they’ve placed so highly. But there is something to be said for an underdog that rises from a precarious position to a spot where they gain control and end up winning the season. No one exemplifies the underdog victory better than Danni Boatwright. One of the most underrated winners from one of the most underrated seasons in Survivor history.
In the world of Survivor, if you don’t have a big move or big alliance to your name, it can be easy to dismiss that person as a coat-tail rider. But sometimes lots of little moves are more noteworthy than one big move. Danni was the master of little moves. Whether it was voting out Blake to gain the trust of Gary, buying the challenge advantage at the auction, or making sure she went into the merge with three strong guys knowing that they would be targetted before her. In fact, that last move is significant. With those guys getting taken out before her, it allowed Danni to form social bonds with the majority alliance and work her way into their plans. It was very similar to what Jeremy called his “meat-shield” alliance.
The way Stephenie and the Nakum alliance had a grip on the game, there was no way they should have let Danni get anywhere near the final. She attended tribal council 12 times, and survived each one of them! Danni used every advantage she could to tear the majority alliance apart. She even voted against her only dependable ally, Gary, to prove her worth to the controlling alliance; allowing her to form a Final 3 pact with Rafe and Stephenie. Judd, Cindy, and Lydia were voted out one after another, and before you knew it Danni had won the Final 3 Immunity challenge and took the goat Stephenie with her to the Final Tribal Council where she comfortably won 6-1.
You could say that Danni was gypped by the edit. But by Danni’s own admission, and others that season, she intentionally kept her strategy from production because she didn’t want the intricacies of her moves revealed in confessionals or by Jeff Probst at Tribal Council. Which is very smart, but much like Tina and her edit in The Australian Outback, it robs us of a clearer explanation of just how exactly she won the game.
⤋ MOVED DOWN ONE
Chris Daugherty is one of those weird players that depending on who you talk to is either sorely underrated or painfully overrated. So I think hovering in the middle of the pack is a good place for Chris, whom like Danni and Denise, went on a rags to riches story in his season. He managed to overcome seemingly insurmountable odds to snatch victory away from those who held the power.
The defining moment of Chris’s game was how he managed to infiltrate the all girls alliance come the merge. He used a combination of social skills and convincing lies to endear himself to the women. The women themselves were eager to turn on each other, prone to in-fighting and petty squabbles, so Chris didn’t have to do a great deal to fracture their alliance. But his working over Julie to gain information and his ability to pull Eliza into an alliance with her bitter enemies, Twila and Scout, is commendable.
It could be argued that many of the moves were initiated by other players and Chris was merely a cog in the machine. For example, bringing Eliza into the alliance was Twila’s plan but she needed Chris to execute it. But if Chris didn’t perform his duties so well then the entire plan falls apart, so his role is just as important. Once Chris had the numbers on his side his gameplay stepped up. He disposed of the more physical threats which allowed him to win Individual Immunity, and perhaps most significantly, he eliminated Eliza at the Final 4 thereby guaranteeing himself the best shot to win against the two older ladies.
His underdog story doesn’t impress quite so much as Danni’s because the controlling alliance was already crumbling prior to Chris’ involvement, whereas Danni actively created cracks in a much tighter group. But Chris is a strong winner who was able to maneuver through the game despite a detrimental numbers disadvantage. And even though he exploited the personal relationships he made on in the game, his tremendous Final Tribal Council performance earned him a rightful win.
Survivor was still in its infancy when The Australian Outback aired. Borneo winner Richard Hatch had started building the ladder of how to climb to victory, but not all the rungs were yet in place. Then came Tina Wesson, the personal nurse from Tennessee, who for a long while was patronizingly seen as the sweet mom that beat Colby. But I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that outside of Richard Hatch, Tina contributed more to the evolution of strategy than any other winner in the first six seasons.
The thing with Tina is that she is deceptively cunning. To look at her, it is easy to see a sweet, mild-mannered mother figure because she is those things. But she is also wily, secretly snarky and incredibly astute. Every person she voted for in The Australian Outback went home and she achieved that by securing herself a tight alliance and swaying Colby away from Jerri and Amber. She was also cut-throat, voting out Jerri, a member of her own alliance, which at the time was unprecedented.
But the true testament to Tina’s shrewdness was her off-camera inquiry into who Debb had voted for in Kucha’s first Tribal Council – which apparently Kimmi naively revealed. The information that she gleaned was crucial at the merge vote (at this point, tie-votes were broken by the amount of previous votes a player had). Without this information, the Ogakor tribe wouldn’t have been able to successfully execute their plan. Tina wasn’t only scraping by on politeness and niceties. She was always thinking how to win, none more so than when she convinced Colby to take her to the finals.
Tina was voted out first on her return in All-Stars, but as a former winner, she really had no shot that season. She redeemed herself with her respectable performance on Blood vs Water where she finished in fourth place (after returning from Redemption Island). Much like with JT and Earl, Tina had a strong partner in Colby (incredibly underrated as a strategist) which the edit underplayed – but it does swing some credit over to Colby and drops Tina a couple of points.
I said that Tina didn’t rely on politeness and niceties to get by but with Survivor: Africa winner Ethan Zohn, that is kind of what happened. Of course, that wasn’t the only reason Ethan won the game, but I think more than any other winner Ethan’s defining factor was his remarkable social game. And there is certainly nothing wrong with that.
Africa, the season filmed in Kenya yet named after an entire continent, is to this day arguably the toughest most unforgiving terrain that Survivor has ever been to. The toll the environment took on the players both physically and mentally was brutal, and it is a testament to Ethan how he not only lasted the entire 39 days but remained affable and aware throughout. Ethan rode with a sturdy alliance comprised of himself, Big Tom and the scatter-brained strategist Lex. When this alliance had to cannibalize itself after Kim Johnson surprisingly won the last two Immunity challenges, it was Ethan’s congenial temperament that kept him in over Tom and Lex.
Ethan survived the first ever tribal switch which saw his two strongest allies sent to the opposing tribe. His decision to throw that challenge in order to keep Tom and Lex safe is an underrated move. He also kept his composure when Lex’s paranoia was running rampant. Ethan never received a vote against him the entire game and was always on the right side of the votes at Tribal Council. Those are huge pluses in Ethan’s favor because while he may not have been the most active strategist, it shows he was always cognizant and in control of his own position within the game. Having a strong social game and keeping in the dominant alliance is a viable and successful Survivor strategy.
In his return to All-Stars, Ethan took a more active role in the strategy side of things but was cursed by the anti-winner sentiment that prevailed over that season. He did, however, last the longest out of all the former winners that returned that season.
Brace yourselves because this placing and the next one are probably going to be controversial. I fully expect these two rankings to garner the most backlash. I’m sure many fans who have been reading through the list so far will have been thinking “Where’s Boston Rob?”, because Rob is generally regarded as one of Survivor’s best ever players and I myself placed him at No. 5 on a previous list. So why the monumental fall?
After seriously reevaluating, I couldn’t in good conscience rank Rob above so many other winners after it took him until his fourth attempt to win. Yes, in an ideal world I’d love to just rank the winning season, but it’s impossible not to take past performances into consideration. However, while I know there will be people that think Rob is placed shockingly low, I know there will be others that still think he is ranked too favorably.
Part of my reasoning for his high ranking before was that his All-Stars game was equally as dominant as his Redemption Island game, and I highlighted how the personal nature of the relationships that season went against Rob in the jury vote. But even if that has an element of truth to it, it doesn’t mask that Rob ultimately played a losing game. What I do give Rob credit for is his ruthlessness and out-of-the-box thinking. If Richard and Tina are the two winners of the first six seasons that most influenced Survivor strategy, then Rob is the first non-winner of the first six seasons to most influence Survivor strategy.
In Marquesas, Rob introduced a new kind of strategic thinking. He voted out the strong tribe leader early rather than letting them gain control (a staple of the first three seasons), he scooped up the underdogs and outcasts and used them to gain power, and he employed the strategy of fear to get people to do his bidding. This style of play was a huge influence on players like Rob Cesternino and Jonny Fairplay who adapted it and used it to even greater success. While things didn’t pan out Rob’s way in Marquesas, he essentially used the same strategy in All-Stars and made it all the way to the end. Even though Amber won, at worst you can say it was a joint effort, and at best you can say Rob controlled that game.
But the main reason I still rank Rob above 13 other winners is for his astounding game in Redemption Island. Yes, he had the benefit of having played multiple seasons, but you could say the same for Rupert (also played four times), Amanda, Ozzy, or Russell (three times each). None of them were ever able to win and they never entered the game with as big a target as Rob did. Coming in with experience is an advantage but also a disadvantage. Rob managed to stay off the radar despite his target due to his sheer Manson-like mind-control. “He played against idiots” is another argument leveled at Rob, that is my least favorite criticism because people say the same thing about Kim or Earl or Brian. You play the cards you’re dealt. His alliances and sub-alliances, “the buddy system”, the separate shelters, scheduled eating times, his ego-boosting and manipulation of Phillip, it was all masterful.
For all his flaws, you could never say Rob wasn’t a pro-active player in each season he competed on. That is effectively why he still ranks above other less pro-active winners. I had to write so much about this entry as I know it will be the most protested, well, at least as much as the next one.
So if Boston Rob is the person that many people will say should be higher up the list, then I expect Natalie White will be the person many people say should be lower. Almost every winners ranking I’ve seen online has Natalie either ranked dead last or near to it. But I think it’s about time we dispel the myth that Natalie was a “bad winner” or “undeserving.”
The one thing that Natalie was undeserving of was a lopsided edit that unfortunately underplayed her role in the season. Samoa told the story of Russell and why he lost, rather than why Natalie won. The biggest criticism of Natalie is that she rode Russell’s coattails. The reason I don’t like this argument is because it undersells Natalie’s awareness and acts as if she wasn’t an active participant in the alliance. People forget that there were other young females that Russell approached early in the game to form a Final 2 alliance. But it wasn’t those girls sitting in the finals, it was Natalie, because unlike those other girls, she knew exactly how to play into Russell’s ego.
I’m not saying that Russell didn’t play a good game in Samoa. I’m just saying that Natalie played a better game without the flaws that Russell’s had. While Russell was digging for his 1000th idol of the season, Natalie was building connections and relationships with her fellow tribemates. As early as Episode 4, Natalie reveals that she knows she can beat Russell in the end, therefore she makes a conscious decision to align with the person she knows will do the dirty work but who will also make enemies. Meanwhile, she focused on cultivating her personal relationships. It’s not a million miles away from Brian going to the end with Clay or Danni with Stephenie.
Natalie was on the right side of the votes at every single Tribal Council (and she attended 15 of them!). The only time she had votes against her was the tie-vote, in which the Galu tribe believed they would be drawing rocks, therefore their votes for Natalie were to ensure she was safe (in the rocks scenario the two highest vote-getters become safe). Does this sound like someone just riding coat-tails? No, it shows that Natalie was always aware of what was happening around her and had a super strong social game. The Foa Foa tribe was a disaster but Natalie made herself a necessary part of the controlling alliance and when they entered the merge down in numbers it was Natalie’s move that saved them.
I talked earlier in Danni’s write-up about how sometimes lots of little moves are more worthy than one big move. In Samoa, Russell’s moves were big and flashy, usually because they involved idols. Natalie’s moves didn’t have the fanfare but you’d be hard-pressed to find a better move that season than her convincing the Galu tribe to blindside Erik at the merge. Natalie had observed, along with Mick and Jaison, that Erik was a shifty character, and they believed he would be the right person to target. Having bonded with Laura during the early kidnapping twist, it was Natalie that approached the Galu women with the idea to blindside Erik. She sold it to them as a mutually beneficial move. Even Russell was hesitant to believe she had achieved this (he wasted his idol that night), because, like people still to this day, he underestimated Natalie.
Without the Erik blindside, the Foa Foa tribe might never have gotten a foothold in the game. Russell then idoled out Kelly, which was a well-executed move, but lacked the social maneuvering of Natalie’s play. Natalie played into Russell’s idea of her so well that he took her to the end believing he could easily beat her. Instead, she destroyed him after giving one of the best Final Tribal Council performances in history. She might have spent more time in the passenger seat than in the driver’s seat, but even though the driver has his hands on the wheel, it is often the passenger holding the map (or reading the GPS). Natalie had a clear vision of the road to victory.
While I expect the above two entries to receive the most criticism, I’m well aware that this placing could also attract some abuse. Despite her minimal edit on the show, I know that Sophie Clarke has garnered quite a loyal following in the Survivor community. Many people consider Sophie a top-tier winner. I also think Sophie is a good winner, who certainly had more to her strategy than what we were provided with on the show, but unfortunately, her stats just don’t stack up compared to many of the other winners.
Sophie shares a lot of similarities to Natalie White actually. They both successfully pinpointed the goats of their season early on, in this instance it was Coach, and they both aligned with that goat while maneuvering themselves to the end alongside them. I think Sophie was more active in controlling Coach than Natalie was Russell, but I rank her lower because, unlike Natalie, there were a couple of times Sophie was on the wrong side of the votes (although one was an intentional vote-splitting scenario), and her social game wasn’t as strong. She was criticized at the Final Tribal Council for having a condescending attitude. Although that’s part of the reason I enjoy Sophie as a personality, it isn’t a recommended trait for Survivor.
But her behind-the-scenes decision making alongside Albert, and her use of Coach as a figurehead for the alliance, was smart, effective, understated strategy. When the original Upolu alliance started to turn on each other, Sophie persuaded Coach and Rick to stick with her and target Brandon. She then later convinced Coach and Albert to take out Rick, after Ozzy returned from Redemption Island and won Immunity. Sophie was also a strong challenge performer and it was her win over Ozzy in the Final Immunity challenge that finally allowed the tribe to vote him out for good and took Sophie, Albert, and Coach to the end.
Her game wasn’t the most in-your-face, but it was quietly thought-out and required a real test of patience and endurance. Sophie isn’t the type of player that has to shout about her game from the roof-tops, but I bet if she were to ever play again, out of most the winners here, she would be the one to have the best chance of repeated success.
I genuinely feel bad about ranking Tyson so low because he is one of my favorite characters to ever appear on Survivor. He’s funny and entertaining and overall a likable person. But Tyson has had the privilege of playing three times. In comparison to the other winners, that is just one behind Rob, and joint with Parvati and Tina. It’s an advantage that the rest of the winners haven’t had. Yet I’ve ranked him below all of those other multiple time returnee winners, so what gives?
Well, Tina won on her first time with an impressive, subtle control over the game. Parvati’s overall average speaks for itself and her ruthless game in Micronesia topples that of most other winners. And while Rob has played the most, he made it to the end in All-Stars and his winning game in Redemption Island was utterly dominant. Tyson, however, had an okay first game in Tocantins but was flawed by a less than stellar social game and an inability to see how much of a threat JT was. His second game in Heroes vs. Villains was embarrassingly short-lived after a huge blunder, that in effect caused the downfall of his and Boston Rob’s game.
However, in his third season, Tyson had learned from his mistakes. His Blood vs. Water performance was indeed impressive. He knew when and where to look for idols, he developed a strong alliance by picking up the singles left in the game, and he kept those numbers with some crafty blindsides.
Things could have taken a turn for the worst with Tyson’s lack of control over Ciera. She even forced Tyson into a rock drawing situation which could have been the end of his game; luckily it went his way and from that moment on it was his game to lose. But, while Tyson had tamed his personality somewhat, there were still times he was needlessly condescending at Tribal Council which had he ended up in the finals with anyone other than Monica and Gervase could have cost him jury votes. That drops him below these other multiple season vets.
As always it’s difficult to place the most recent winner as we haven’t had very long to digest their win. But this seems the right spot for Adam, at least for the time being. He was the best of the worst and the worst of the best – if that makes sense. He got to the end with the two players he could beat while avoiding having to face off against the Davids and Jays of the world. His game was good but blunderous. There was a point where it seemed like he’d tanked any chance of winning a jury vote, which isn’t good, but the fact he was able to overcome that and end up sweeping the jury is a testament to his game.
Adam had successes but they were often followed by failure. He seemed to be in the early majority on the Millennials tribe, with the Triforce on the outs, then Michelle flipped the votes, leaving Adam on the outs. He became the swing vote after the tribe swap, taking out Figgy and securing the numbers, but then caused paranoia by continuing to confide in Taylor. He found two idols but misplayed them both (although the one he played on Hannah was an appropriate risk). He was also bad at keeping secrets, revealing both his reward advantage and his idol to players that then used the info against him. Also, sometimes the way Adam spoke to other players came across as condescending and cocky, which rubbed people the wrong way, even his allies.
But again, the fact Adam overcame these obstacles is what separates him from those below him on the rankings. His social game was strong enough that he was able to patch up wounded relationships (like with Jay). He expertly played (or didn’t play) his reward stealer advantage to gain back good will. He kept bigger threats around to avoid the target landing on himself. While he wasn’t always in control of the vote, he did take the lead in the Figgy and Will eliminations, while being a firm number on the majority of the post-merge vote-offs. In the end, he won with a unanimous vote, which only a few winners have been able to pull off.
Michele had an excellent social game that saw her win against two people who earlier in the season people thought she’d have zero chance of beating. Her warm personality made her appear non-threatening and people trusted her enough to bring her into their plans, using Michele’s vote to take out threats, while Michele grew into a threat before their very eyes. With a couple of clutch challenge wins towards the end of the game, Michele was able to make it to the final tribal council as the perceived underdog.
All those qualities make Michele a good winner, but again, when it comes to separating the winners we have to examine all the factors. So why is Michele towards the bottom end of the list? Well, Michele went 22 days without ever attending tribal council. In fact, Michele only attended six tribal councils the entire season (two of which she had immunity). That’s crazy. Of course, luck plays a huge factor in any winning game, and Michele had tons of luck. Not just being safe 22 days, but also avoiding potential elimination because of Joe being medevaced at the Final 5. So it’s hard to compare Michele to say, Denise, who went to every single tribal and survived them all. That said, Michele did appear to be in the majority at the Beauty tribe, but it’s difficult to say what would have happened had her tribes lost pre-merge.
Another knock against Michele is that she rarely controlled a vote. Not that you need to control a vote to win but when we’re down to the nitty gritty it’s what separates these players. She went with the flow, usually following the lead of Cydney and Aubry. She was also blindsided by the Scot vote. However, she did force a tie at the Final 4, which probably secured her Cydney’s jury vote, and she won the power to remove a juror, eliminating Neal. In a way, Michele had a similar game to Adam, they had lucky breaks and made blunders, but persevered and worked their way back into the game. Michele was also willing to cut her allies to survive three more days, as we saw with Nick and Julia, and when she needed to win, she delivered in immunity challenges.
On paper, John Cochran played a “perfect game”. A strong challenge performer who never received a vote against him at Tribal Council and won with a unanimous vote in the end. So you may be wondering why I ranked JT, the only other “perfect game ” winner, at No. 3, and Cochran way down here at No. 25. Let me explain. While Caramoan wasn’t quite the anomaly that All-Stars was, it is still an odd season to properly get a grasp on because of the rather strange casting on the Favorites tribe.
I’m not going to completely discount Cochran’s game based on pre-game alliances because those are a factor in any returning player season, and just because you go into the game with pre-formed relationships doesn’t always mean they hold up – just ask two-time first bootee Francesca about that. But playing Survivor with friends made outside of the show is, of course, going to help you when it comes to not getting votes at Tribal Council – which is something JT never had when he first played. Of course, Cochran never had that either when he first played, but in South Pacific, he had a poor social game and a blunderous move at the merge which ultimately cost him the game. Whereas JT won when he first played, with no votes against him and a unanimous jury vote.
However, Cochran did improve a lot from his first stint. In Caramoan, he was a lot more confidence in his decision making and with a group of strong allies was able to push things in the direction he wanted if he felt strongly enough about it. For example, his targeting Matt and Brenda. But the majority of the time it felt like Cochran was just a spoke in the wheel rather than the person riding the bike. He would be the one to get a plan rolling rather than the one coming up with the plan; like when Dawn wanted to target Corinne or when Andrea wanted to target Michael. Being a spoke is a good role to be in, it’s a position that Chris Daugherty relished, but when Chris did it it was more impressive because he crafted that slot for himself from an underdog position. Cochran more or less came into the game in that position and was never really tested.
With that said, Cochran worked that position to his advantage. He let Dawn take most of the heat for the betrayals and blindsides while he maintained a solid social game. He was also able to separate emotion from strategy and for that was rewarded with all the jury votes in the end.
If you consider challenge ability as one of the key components of a Survivor winner, then there is no doubt that Mike would be much higher up the list. But challenges are essentially the dressing on the sides of what Survivor truly is – a social game. Mike sabotaged his own social game and was public enemy number one for most of the second half of the game.
Winning five challenges in a row is fantastic but needing to win those challenges in order to survive is not quite so impressive. Tom was a challenge beast but he didn’t need to win challenges to stay in the game, he also had the strategic skill and social skills to keep himself safe. Mike didn’t have that when he was in danger. However, Mike did have a fairly decent strategic game pre-merge. He was able to lead a majority on his tribes, even if his attitude got him into arguments sometimes.
If Mike were able to continue his pre-merge game into the merge, then he’d rank a lot higher. Unfortunately, he torpedoed his social game worse than any winner I’ve ever seen. But he does get credit for winning his way to the end and choosing to sit next to beatable opponents. Also, his forcing a tie-break at the Final 4 was a great demonstration of power in front of the jury. Ultimately, Mike’s game has major flaws, but he was able to overcome the odds and prevail.
People have heard of Owen Wilson, right? The famous movie star from films like Wedding Crashers and Midnight In Paris. And his brother Luke Wilson? Slightly less famous but known for his roles in Old School and Anchorman. How about their older brother Andrew Wilson? No? He was in The Royal Tenenbaums. It must feel disheartening to be overshadowed by your more famous siblings, and that is kind of how I see Aras Baskauskas in relation to his fellow Panama cast-mates.
Aras is not new to the concept of overshadowing. As per the story told on his return season Blood vs Water, in real life his accomplishments have always overshadowed that of his older brother Vytas. But in Panama, it was Aras being overshadowed, and this time it wasn’t the fault of the editors. His social and strategic game was overshadowed by Cirie, his physical game was overshadowed by challenge dominator Terry, and his entertainment level was overshadowed by Shane and Courtney and pretty much everyone else that season. If this sounds like I’m being needlessly harsh on Aras, I don’t mean to be, I’m just trying to shed some light on why he has a low ranking.
In terms of actual points on the board, Aras has much more in common with Owen and Luke Wilson than he does Andrew. He knows success; he did, after all, win the season. He went into the merge with numbers and did well to keep those numbers together despite the clashing personalities. With Terry’s immunity challenge streak, Aras was able to keep the alliance focused on eliminating Terry because without Terry in the game it could be argued that Aras would have been the next big target. Aras was able to gain trust with relative ease, and he had the wherewithal to drop out of the Final Immunity challenge once Terry had been eliminated, knowing that Danielle would take him to the Final 2.
Where Aras loses points is for his rather weak social game. He had votes against him at multiple Tribal Councils, and also, without the focus on Terry, his game awareness was questionable at times. When Cirie saw that Terry and Shane were planning to take Courtney to the end as a goat, it was her that convinced Aras, and by proxy Danielle, to blindside Courtney and subsequently Shane. What this shows is that Cirie had a firmer grip on the game dynamics because Aras was giving up easy Final 2 goats in order to stay loyal to Cirie.
Aras even voted to keep Cirie at the Final 4 and forced a tie-break! This is odd on two levels. Firstly, if Cirie stayed then he would have been keeping a weak challenge performer in the game and the main aim at that point was to make sure Terry didn’t win the Final Immunity challenge. Secondly, if Cirie stayed and Terry did lose the Final Immunity, then it would have been Cirie and Aras in the finals, and while we can never say for sure, judging by the season and post-show interviews, Cirie would have comfortably beaten Aras. Luckily for Aras, Cirie lost the fire-making tiebreaker and in the end, he sat next to Danielle, someone with a worse social game than himself.
I apologize to Vecepia for once placing her at the bottom of this list because in re-evaluation I can actually see how much of a solid game she actually played. She was the first person to perfect the under-the-radar strategy that was later adopted to even greater success by two-time winner Sandra Diaz-Twine. Vecepia had an excellent read on the dynamics of the game and the personalities playing it. She would subtly provoke people into crashing and burning simply by feeding into their egos; for example the way she encouraged Hunter early in the season. She kept track of the numbers really well so she knew when to flip or when to hold tight.
While the Maraamu tribe entered the merge drastically down on numbers, Vecepia made sure to use her social bonds to remain off the chopping block. She voted with the majority against her former tribe to prove her loyalty (voting out Rob). When an opportunity opened up to flip the game on the dominating Rotu tribe with a counter alliance, she took it, in what was the first major power shift in Survivor history. Her bargaining with Neleh in the Final Immunity challenge to ouster Kathy was brilliantly ruthless. Also, knowing based on previous seasons that the Final 4 Immunity challenge would likely be Fallen Comrades, Vecepia brought a journal as her luxury item and used it to keep information about the game and her fellow players. Even though this seems unfair, at the time it was allowed within the rules of the game, and so for that Vecepia was smart.
The reason I still rank Vecepia low, and behind other under the radar players like Natalie White and Sophie Clarke, is because it is easier to find criticisms with her game. While the flip against the Rotu alliance was a monumental swing in the game the likes of which had never been seen up until that point, her choice to align with a solid trio (Kathy, Neleh, and Paschal) was risky. So much so that she lost her tightest ally Sean, and at the Final 4 she had to win Individual Immunity to survive. Also, the controversial Purple Rock tiebreaker where Paschal went home could have back-fired because Vecepia was adamant that night that Neleh be the one sent home, and at that point, Neleh was really the only person Vecepia had a chance of beating at the end.
These criticisms may seem minor in the grand scheme of things because Vecepia still won the game (although it was an extremely close vote) but at this stage of the list, these small errors become magnified in an effort to separate the best of the best.
Now that we’re at the lower end of the list, this is when it gets a lot tougher. As I’ve said before, I don’t believe there is such a thing as a “bad winner”. So, just because these people are at the bottom does not mean that I think they are terrible players or undeserving of their win. 478 people have played Survivor and only these 30 players have won the game. That right there tells you everything you need to know. What I’m trying to say is that I think Jenna Morasca is a good winner, she is certainly not the worst winner ever like Jeff Probst once called her.
The reason I have ranked Jenna so low is that compared to the winners above, there were more mistakes in her game that could have cost her the win. What do I mean by mistakes? Well, in the twist where the youngest members of both tribes traveled to an isolated location to act as ambassadors for their tribes, Jenna freely revealed all the inter-personal relationships of her tribe to Dave. This could have majorly backfired when they then had to pick new tribes, and of course, Dave immediately took Jenna’s best friend and closest ally, Heidi. It wasn’t a fatal flaw in her game because it happened to work out, but when it gets down to the nitty-gritty of this list it’s those kind of things that separate the winners.
Jenna was also prone to becoming too comfortable with her position in the game and therefore was caught off guard; like the blindside of her alliance mate Alex, and other than maybe Natalie Anderson, out of all the other winners above, none of them were ever blindsided quite like that. When she wasn’t in a comfortable position she could get quite down and there were a couple of times she wanted to quit. Although she was only 21 years old when she played Amazon, so I do give her a little bit of a leeway for that. It also felt like Jenna wasn’t in complete control until the very end. While she was in the majority alliance for most of the season, it always felt like others were dictating the moves – specifically Rob Cesternino.
But Jenna does deserve praise for being able to keep within the numbers throughout the majority of the game and recovering when she was on the outs. And despite wanting to quit, her perseverance and determination at the end of the game helped her win back to back Immunity challenges which ultimately led to her best move – voting out Rob and taking the goat Matthew to the Final Tribal Council.
Amber Mariano (Brkich)
I’ve had a couple of people tell me that I need to reevaluate my ranking of Amber Mariano, having placed her low in previous rankings. I have considered her game more, and I certainly regret saying she was carried by Rob because that was unfair and untrue. But I still can’t rank Amber much higher because she doesn’t have that key move or depth to her strategy that can be analyzed in quite as much detail as most of the other winners.
All-Stars itself is hard to analyze on a strategic level because it is an anomaly. Other than Heroes vs Villains and Second Chance, this is the only season to have a cast entirely comprised of returning players, and this was the first time it happened. There were players that were never going to be able to win this season. You can argue that every player has a chance, but the likelihood of former winners like Richard Hatch or Tina Wesson, or known mastermind strategists like Rob Cesternino, ever making it to the end were extremely slim. The bond and relationships between the first few casts of Survivor were also intensely strong; lots of personal animosity and bitterness came out in the game.
That’s not to detract completely from Amber’s win, it just goes a little way in explaining how hard it is to judge her game in comparison to the other winners. Amber’s strategy itself is very linear – she finds someone she gets along with and stays loyal to them throughout the game. She did this in The Australian Outback with Jerri and again in All-Stars with Rob. Both of those people happen to be quite abrasive, polarizing figures who Amber would have a high chance of beating in a Final 2 scenario. But this isn’t like with Natalie White or Sophie Clarke who consciously aligned with a goat knowing that they could beat them in the end. Amber aligned out of friendship, and later romance, and while I’m sure Amber knew full well she could beat Rob in All-Stars, I don’t think that was her driving force.
But Amber actually had a splendid social game. After the tribe shuffle, where the entire tribes switched except for Amber, the new Mogo Mogo tribe were devastated that Amber was no longer there. And her plea to Kathy at this point, coupled with Rob’s deal with Lex, proved crucial to her staying in the game. She also performed well in challenges and was always on the right side of the vote. So I do give Amber credit for working with what she had and taking home the crown.
Jud “Fabio” Birza
When you look at Jud Birza and see those blue eyes and long blonde locks, it is easy to dismiss him as a pretty-boy air-head. This is after all how he earned the nickname Fabio from his fellow tribemates. What people seem to forget about Fabio is that while he may not have been the sharpest knife in the drawer, he was well aware of his tribemates’ perception of him. Very early on in the season, he told the cameras that if playing up to the air-head stereotype got him further in the game, then that’s what he would do.
The reason Fabio ranks second from bottom is because his stats are some of the worst of any winner. He was on the wrong side of the vote a whopping four times. Whether it was intentional to stay out of the strategy or not almost becomes irrelevant because to have that much lack of insight into what is going on is dangerous. Sandra may have taken a conscious step back from the plan making but she was almost always aware of what was happening around her so that if her name was brought up she could make a counter move. With Fabio unaware of the game going on around him, it put him at serious risk of being voted out and he almost was when it came down to a choice between him or Benry. From that point forward Fabio had to rely on Individual Immunity wins to stay in the game.
Fabio’s unconventional strategy is a risky one, but he somehow made it work with an underrated self-awareness and an acceptable social game; although he did almost lose to wishy-washy Chase. He was a strong challenge performer and a fun personality but his lack of control over both the game (and his own game) puts him at the low end of the list.
The position that nobody wants to be in. I apologize to Bob Crowley for placing him last, but I’m sure the fact that he won Survivor and has a $1 million in the bank helps him get over my irrelevant opinion pretty quickly. I’ve said it numerous times and I’ll say it again just for clarification – I don’t believe there is such a thing as a bad Survivor winner. So just because I’ve placed Bob last does not mean I think he is a “bad winner”. Ranking Bob last simply means that I felt his winning game was weaker and less impressive than the other 29 winners.
When it comes to the stats, Bob is at the lower end of the spectrum. Like Fabio, Bob was on the wrong side of the vote on four separate occasions, and this wasn’t due to vote-splitting or strategy, it was simply down to Bob being out of the loop and out of the majority alliance. Where Fabio just edges Bob is that Fabio showed some self-awareness at the start of the game regarding his perception and knowing that he could sit back and play dumb and make it far – a risky strategy but a strategy nonetheless. With Bob, you never got that sense of awareness. It always felt like he was on the back-foot playing catch up.
Bob was brought into the majority Kota alliance at the beginning as a disposable number, but even his own alliance rarely kept him in the loop and later replaced him with Randy. But when that alliance crumbled, Bob survived through his superior social game. Yet it seemed like Bob was even sabotaging his best chance of winning the game. The fake idol he created was impressive but could have blown up in his face. Even though Bob claimed he was using it to gain favor with the Matty/Sugar alliance, I believe Bob could have used his social game alone to fit into that alliance. All the fake idol did was further piss off Randy and almost lost Bob a jury vote.
For a significant portion of the game, Bob had to rely on winning Individual Immunity to survive, and that’s exactly what he did. When he didn’t have Immunity at the end, he was kept in by the emotional decision making of Sugar, who forced a tie, and Bob then beat Matty in a fire-making challenge. Sugar’s unusual approach to Survivor and the way she controlled the end-game saved Bob’s skin, but let’s leave that for another list called “Unintentional Survivor Strategists.”
Somewhere out there maybe there is a winner ranking list that puts more weight on challenge wins, and if so, then I’m sure Bob ranks much higher. But for me, I see Survivor as a game of social maneuvering and manipulation, and I put much more focus on social bonds, game awareness, and strategic thinking. When you combine all three of those elements, Bob doesn’t quite match up to the other winners.