Survivor Strategy: Using The Outsiders

A key Survivor strategy is explored.

This following post will be the first in hopefully many Survivor Strategy blogs in which I will focus in on one particular type of strategy adopted by a player (or players) throughout Survivor’s history. I will examine the concept behind the strategy, how it was put into effect, and the overall results. This may not be everyone’s cup of tea and if you watch Survivor simply for the characters and entertainment value then this probably won’t be for you and that’s perfectly fine. However, if you have even the slightest interest in game theory and how it can be applied to Survivor strategy then hopefully you will find some value in these very long, in-depth blog posts.

Today’s topic is Using The Outsiders.


For the first three seasons of Survivor, the strategic game was relatively simple, at least when compared to the complexities and variables of modern day Survivor. The general rule was to form a solid tribal alliance, gain a numerical advantage by winning challenges pre-merge, and then vote out the opposing tribal alliance one-by-one after the merge. This strategy was affectionately nicknamed “Pagonging”, after the original season in Borneo where the Tagi Four alliance systematically decimated the opposing Pagong tribe. Sure there were rare cases where members of the dominant alliance were voted out over those in the rival alliance: Amber Brkich and Jerri Manthey in Australian Outback or Kelly Goldsmith in Africa. But those eliminations were based more on annoyance, or in the case of Kelly, misinformation, rather than strategy.

Nobody was actively flipping on their core group and using the outsiders from the opposing alliance to improve their own position in the game. As crazy as it sounds now, nobody really thought that way back then; or if they did they were too afraid to actually do something about it. However, the tide started to shift in Marquesas; itself a season massively important to the evolution of Survivor. For the first time, two groups of outsiders decided to join together to make a move against those in power. The first hint of this came early in the season in “No Pain, No Gain” (Episode 3, March 13, 2002), when Rob Mariano, Sarah Jones, Sean Rector and Vecepia Towery voted out their supposed tribe leader Hunter Ellis in what was Survivor’s first major blindside.

While Rob, Sarah, Sean and Vecepia weren’t outsiders in the numerical sense, they were outsiders in perception, based on what people expected from the show having seen the first three seasons. Players like Hunter – physically fit, strong, hard-working – weren’t supposed to be voted out that early in the game, whereas the likes of Rob, Vecepia and especially Sarah and Sean were seen as pre-merge fodder. This group coming together and forming an alliance was the first instance of outsiders taking charge and showing that this game could be played in a different way. And if that move wasn’t enough to prove that outsiders can cause damage, then the fall of the Rotu Four in “Jury’s Out” (Episode 8, April 18, 2002) changed the course of Survivor forever.

After the coconut chop Immunity Challenge, where the cocky Rotu Four alliance carelessly revealed the pecking order of the tribe, Kathy Vavrick-O’Brien, Neleh Dennis and Paschal English realized that they were near the bottom of that pecking order. Unlike in previous seasons, where the power alliance continues to vote down tribal lines until only two remain, Kathy, Neleh, and Paschal tried to improve their position by aligning with fellow outsiders Sean and Vecepia, thereby creating a new majority and blindsiding Rotu Four’s leader John Carroll. In what is still to this day one of Survivor’s greatest episodes, the entire complexion of the game changed. It showed that Pagongings could be avoided, tribal alliances could be broken, and the outsiders could and did have a fighting chance.


Then Rob Cesternino came along in The Amazon and truly changed the Survivor landscape forever. Marquesas showed us that fellow outsiders could group together to take over the game and improve their positions. The Amazon, and more significantly Rob, showed us that outsiders could be utilized as pawns to make moves against the game’s biggest threats. Not only that, but he showed us that this strategy could be used over and over again; jumping back and forth between different groups of outsiders to make bold moves against the game’s big targets, while at the same time advancing yourself one step further to the $1 million.

Rob pioneered the Using The Outsiders strategy; a strategy that I believe when pulled off properly can be one of the most effective strategies in Survivor. So how did Rob do it?

1. No One Suspects The Goofball

Before you can master any form of serious Survivor strategy you need to ingratiate yourself with your fellow tribemates. The early portion of the game is all about finding your footing and setting yourself up in a position from which you can work your strategies later in the game. I think that is where a lot of budding Survivor masterminds go wrong; they enter the game expecting to be this

I think that is where a lot of budding Survivor masterminds go wrong; they enter the game expecting to be this all-controlling Boston Rob or Kim Spradlin style player, when in reality those types of winners are the exception rather than the rule. Coming into the game under the belief you will have immediate control of your tribemates, or even just thinking you will take control of camp life, is a seriously risky way to play the game and unlikely to reward positive results. Instead, you want to be starting the game appearing as non-threatening as possible.

Rob entered The Amazon as this nerdy 24-year-old New Yorker that sang karaoke in his parent’s basement and had trouble with the ladies. He didn’t try to pretend he was something he wasn’t. He exaggerated his personality and played into the image of the loveable goofball; he cracked jokes, told funny anecdotes, and rubbed his Magic 8 ball (that’s not a euphemism). Jon Dalton, who I will talk about more later, did something similar in Pearl Islands, telling sex stories and doing impressions of pro-wrestlers.

I’m not saying that everyone has to make Perry Como gags, but the basic idea is that you want to start the game appearing as non-threatening and unsuspecting as possible. Everybody is going to be able to see that the person calling out orders is going to be a problem. Nobody is going to expect the guy building sand-castles and swinging from coconut trees to stab them in the back.

I could dedicate a whole separate blog post to the strategy of acting the goofball, but I felt it needed mentioning here because it really is the first step in the Using The Outsiders game-plan.

2. Ride In The Middle

This next part ties in nicely with the playing the goofball strategy. Setting yourself up as “non-threatening but likable”, is likely to put you in a position where people approach you for a vote, rather than you having to put yourself out there and take charge off the bat. What this does is give you options. You are able to observe the game from an outsider’s perspective, and this will come in handy when trying to work out who the outsiders are later in the game.

Rob knew this all too well; he could shoot the shit with the younger guys on the tribe or he could appeal to the worth ethic of the tribe’s elder statesman. He made time for everyone and made himself available to everyone.

Riding the middle should never be mistaken for being wishy-washy. The rule in Survivor is that if someone asks you to vote with them, or prompts you to be in alliance, you say yes, regardless of whether you intend to follow through with it or not. You never want to give a reason for somebody to target you, and telling someone no, or giving them a vague “maybe”, is a sure-fire way to do just that. Look at what happened to Christy Smith later in this specific season.

So say yes to everyone, let everyone believe you are on their side, and then make the best move for you at Tribal Council. Rob did this countless times and it never truly came back to bite him because he was the unassuming goofball that didn’t know how to correctly use a machete and traded witty retorts with Jeff Probst at challenges.

Here is a brief history of Rob riding in the middle: in the first vote he aligned with the older guys, Roger Sexton and Butch Lockley, along with his closest ally Alex Bell, to take out Ryan Aiken. He could have just as easily aligned with the younger guys and taken out Roger. During the tribe swap, he aligned with Deena Bennett and Jenna Morasca and used his pet project Matt von Ertfelda to take out Shawna Mitchell. If he wanted to, he could have taken himself and Matt and voted with Alex and Shawna to vote out either Deena or Jenna.

At the merge, he solidified his alliance with Deena, Jenna, Alex, and then Heidi Strobel, by voting out Roger, when he had the option of using outsiders Matt and Christy and voting with the other guys to remove either Deena, Heidi or Jenna.

Do you see what I mean by giving yourself options? You never want to be forced into a position where you can only play one particular way because you end up playing the game with your back against the wall. Riding in the middle is the perfect position from which to pull in outsiders and start making big moves, and Rob did that with aplomb.


3. Knowing Who Is On The Outside

Right, so you’ve convinced your tribe that you’re a non-threat due to your adorable goofiness and charm, you’ve given yourself multiple options by riding in the middle and making yourself available to everyone, and now you are ready to put the Using The Outsiders strategy into effect.

If you make it to the merge, then you’ve gotten past the hard part. I believe the early portion of this game is a lot tougher because Survivor requires time and patience to secure your spot on the tribe, and at the beginning of the game everyone is just looking for an excuse to vote anyone else out that isn’t them. Going into the merge, you should feel confident enough in your abilities and reads to start removing the biggest threats to your chance of winning.

So how do you take out the big threats? Especially if you are aligned with the big threats? You use the outsiders. There is always a pecking order in Survivor and there will always be people at the bottom of that pecking order, as we saw in Marquesas, as we’ve seen in every single season of this show. And then there are those that just don’t fit in with the majority of the tribe.

In the first three seasons of Survivor, these players would just float along and wait until it was their time to be voted out. In Marquesas, these players joined together and formed a new majority. In The Amazon, Rob used these players to remove his biggest threats. But to do this you need to be able to determine who is truly on the outs; if you have followed steps 1 and 2 properly then you should have a very good idea of the tribe dynamics and where everyone stands.

From early on, Rob saw that Matt was an outsider, he was unfamiliar with the nuance of the game, he had quirks that rubbed people the wrong way, and was just generally living on the outskirts of the tribe. Matt could have been easy vote-off fodder, but Rob saw the potential he had as a pawn and groomed him to be his pet project. Boston Rob did the same with Phillip Shepherd in Redemption Island.

Keeping Matt around allowed Rob to use him as a vote for his alliance to take out Shawna, to take out Roger, to take out Dave etc. So keep an eye on the people that don’t fit into the tribe and spend your time building a relationship with them; even if it is like pulling teeth, you can suck it up for a million dollars.

But it isn’t just the weirdos you need to keep close; it’s anyone on the bottom. If you are in the majority alliance, you are most likely aware of the voting order, and if you know who is on the chopping block in the near future then it gives you the opportunity to approach those people and form a counter-alliance. Rob did this with not just Matt, but Butch and Christy, and then later Heidi and Jenna.


4. Putting The Outsiders To Work

To make big moves you need more than one outsider, and Rob was always aware of who was at the bottom. When Deena wanted to make a move against Alex, her own ally, instead of the outsider Butch, it put Rob in the ultimate position of power. Rob, knowing Butch was on the outs and a target, used that knowledge to scoop up Butch into his outsiders alliance with Matt. This move allowed Rob the choice to either vote with Deena and Christy to take out Alex or vote with Alex, Heidi, and Jenna to take out Deena.

Rob decided to vote out Deena – a very intelligent, underrated player who was playing a very similar game to Rob. With Deena out, it put the Alex, Heidi, Jenna and Rob alliance in the power position and they all made it perfectly clear how comfortable they felt. Rob played into this, letting his own alliance mates sink their games knowing how much resentment was brewing from the outsiders towards them.

When Alex carelessly told Rob that when it got down to the final four that he would most likely vote Rob out to avoid a tie, Rob set to work on a plan to vote out Alex. How did he do it? By using the outsiders.

Rob already had a working relationship with Butch and Matt, but he needed a fourth vote to take out Alex and he wasn’t getting that from Heidi or Jenna. So he approached Christy; someone clearly on the outs and an upcoming target. When you offer life to someone who is almost at death’s door you all but guarantee their support, and so of course Christy voted with Rob, and they took out Alex.

Heidi and Jenna were pissed off because for the first time in the game they had become the outsiders. Rob was tight with his outsiders alliance including Butch and Matt, and Christy was left in the middle, she could either go with the guys or side with the girls. Christy is the perfect example of how to mess up the ride in the middle strategy.

Being a swing vote is a great position to be in, if you know how to play it, but if you become cocky and/or indecisive, then people will just vote you out. When Rob was in the middle he made sure to tell everyone what they wanted to hear. Remember, if somebody asks you to vote with them you just say yes. When Rob asked Christy if she was sticking with the guys, she gave a wishy-washy answer and it made Rob nervous.

Rob didn’t want to end up in a tied vote situation, and so what did he do? He used the outsiders. Rob went back to Heidi and Jenna, offered them life, and used them to vote with himself and Matt, creating a new majority and voting out Christy. There was no way you’d expect Heidi and Jenna to work with Rob again after he voted out Alex, but he appealed to their sense of logic and knew as outsiders they’d take the opportunity.

After the Christy vote Rob jumped back over to the guys and voted off Heidi, leaving Jenna as the lone outsider. Unfortunately for Rob, Jenna went on a surprising Immunity winning streak which left him having to vote out Butch, and then eventually got voted out himself at the Final 3 by Jenna, after Matt threw the Final Immunity Challenge knowing that he was getting taken to the end no matter who won.

But the impact Rob made in the game of Survivor can never be overstated. His Using The Outsiders strategy was masterful, and it showed the world that you don’t have to stick to one alliance. In fact, you can jump back and forth between multiple alliances to advance yourself, and it took him deep into the game and almost to the Final 2.


If Rob Cesternino invented the Using The Outsiders strategy then Jon Dalton, aka Jonny Fairplay, took it to the next level in Pearl Islands.

People generally remember Jon for the Dead Grandma Lie and being one of the biggest villains in reality tv history, therefore people mistakenly believe he was hated on Pearl Islands – which just isn’t true. He may have been hated by the majority of the viewing audience but his fellow tribemates didn’t hate him. Disliked at times, yes, maybe, but for the most part, he was liked, and there is no doubt he would have beaten Lillian Morris in the Final 2.

It’s no secret that Jon was recruited for Survivor while waiting at a bus stop; he wasn’t familiar with the show, but before he flew out, he watched and researched the previous seasons and that is when he saw Rob’s game and he knew that was the strategy he needed to adopt.

What makes Jon’s version of the Using The Outsiders strategy more impressive is that he was in danger a lot more than Rob was. There were at least a couple of times where Jon was on the wrong side of the vote and shouldn’t have been able to come back from that position, yet he did and he did it by correctly figuring out who the outsiders were and using them to rebuild alliances. So lets take a look at how the rules stated above applied to Jonny Fairplay.

1. Jon Playing The Goofball

Much like how Rob played up his nerdy persona and comedic tendencies to help create the illusion of a non-threat, Jon likewise took on the role of camp clown. He got drunk and told embarrassing sex stories and did Macho Man Randy Savage impressions. He made his fellow tribemates laugh and feel at ease around him.

He also argued with Sandra a lot, but if you actually listen to what they’re arguing about you see that they’re both trying to secure their position in the game. They’re both shrewd players that play very different styles of strategy, so it made sense why they clashed so much. But even with their back and forth bickering, Sandra never truly hated Jon, she wouldn’t have aligned with him over and over if she did, and there were times when she actually had his back, mainly during his confrontations with Shawn.

Another thing about Jon which is often forgotten is that he worked hard around camp. A key element to Survivor is fitting in with your tribe, this is another strategy, that I like to call Follow The Vibe Of The Tribe. Mario Lanza talked about it a bit on The Survivor Historians podcast, but it basically means to do what everyone else is doing.

If you are part of a tribe that is very high on work ethic then you better start collecting firewood and chopping down bamboo; the Drake tribe was heavily focused on work ethic, so Jon played his part. If your tribe is the lazy, laid-back tribe like Maraamu in Marquesas, then you need to sit back and chill. Otherwise, you’ll be targetted and voted out like Hunter.

To put it bluntly – don’t stand out. Blend in and appear non-threatening. By working hard around camp and being the jokester, Jon achieved both of these.


2. Jon Riding In The Middle

Similarly to Rob, Jon was a friend to everyone and a potential alliance mate to all. The Drake tribe was split between the young, cool kids, Burton Roberts, Michelle Tesauro and Shawn Cohen, and the slightly less cool crew of Christa Hastie, Rupert Boneham, and Sandra Diaz-Twine. Then you had Jon and Trish Dunn in the middle.

Both alliances thought Jon was on their side because Jon was smart and followed the rule that if someone asks you if you’re with them, you nod and say yes. This belief that Jon was with them was what led to Burton and his alliance throwing the Immunity Challenge so that they could vote off some of the tribe’s weaker players not on their side. But Jon being in the middle, meant he was also part of the counter plan to throw the challenge but instead vote out Burton.

With Burton out, Jon was in the majority alliance and was able to vote out Michelle at the next Tribal Council. Jon then made his first real attempt at Using The Outsiders with his and Trish’s plan to blindside Rupert, which would involve using outsider Shawn. However, Sandra didn’t want to vote out Rupert, so she foiled the plan and instead Christa, Rupert and Sandra used Shawn to blindside Trish.

Jon was on the wrong side of the vote, but they kept him over Trish, and this again comes back to him playing the goofball and his worth ethic. Even though he was duplicitous, he was seen as less threatening than Trish, and it saved him. Having voted against Rupert it was expected Jon would be the number one target, yet he managed to worm his way back into the alliance due to the bonds he’d already built, and Shawn was voted out instead.

After Burton and Lill returned to the game due to the Outcasts twist, the Drake and Morgan tribes went into the merge at five people a piece. Even though Jon had worked his way back into the Drake alliance, if he wanted to he could have flipped to vote with the Morgans if he felt that his alliance still distrusted him. But he didn’t, he rode in the middle, observed the dynamics, and figured out what move would be best for his game.

He quickly aligned with the returning Burton, even though he had been a part of voting him out. He just as quickly realised that Lill was ready to flip on the Morgans and he reported this back to the Drake alliance. With that, the Drakes took the numbers, voting out Andrew Savage and Ryan Opray back to back.

3. Jon Figuring Out The Outsiders

Jon didn’t truly start using the outsiders to make his big moves until into the merge, just like Rob, who made the safe votes of Roger and Dave in the first two merge episodes, before he started voting out the big guns like Deena and Alex.

Jon wanted to take out Rupert, but the last time Jon tried to make that move it was too early and he didn’t pull it off. This time, he’d have to have all his pieces in order. Jon needed to figure out who was on the outside and who he could work with.

Burton is the definition of an outsider, he was actually voted out of the game and returned labelled an “outcast”. It would have been easy for Jon to worry about Burton, having voted him out, and it would have been easy for Burton to hold a grudge, but credit to them both that they realised they needed each other.

Nobody else tried to align seriously with Burton when he returned; they were still too scared of him as a challenge threat. But Jon knew how beneficial their partnership could be, not just because Burton was a smart player but because Burton had a bond with Lill. Aligning with Burton meant you also got Lill’s vote – the other “outcast” and even bigger definition of an outsider than Burton.

Jon deserves a lot of credit for joining forces with Burton and Lill when those two players should have been treated like lepers upon returning. But you need more than three people to make a big move at that stage in the game. Just like Rob, Jon was in the majority alliance, so he knew who was next on the chopping block, and once you know that info then you know exactly who to approach to create a counter alliance, and Darrah Johnson and Tijuana Bradley were just sitting there waiting.


4. Jon Putting The Outsiders To Work

So back to the Rupert vote off. Jon and Burton wanted him gone, and getting Lill on side was easy, but the key was bringing Darrah and Tijuana into the plan.

Darrah and Tijuana weren’t the sharpest players but they weren’t stupid, they knew they were the next targets, and so did Jon and Burton. They appealed to that logic and provided them with extended life. With that, a new majority was born. Rupert was voted out and now Christa and Sandra were the outsiders.

But what you have to remember about Pearl Islands is that Sandra won this season, and Sandra is a little gamer. Her game is very different and less obvious than the likes of Rob and Jon, but she is a gamer nonetheless and she had moves. One of those moves involved spying, and she brought Tijuana along to spy on Jon and Burton to confirm that Tijuana was still an outsider in their eyes.

Again, that is a reason Jon’s game was more impressive than Rob’s, because there were times when he was in danger and by rights should have gone home, but he was able to quickly reformulate his plans and save himself.

The episode where Darrah and Tijuana were going to align with Christa and Sandra to vote out Jon or Burton was of course “The Great Lie” (Episode 11, November 26, 2003), where Jon and his friend Thunder D created the dead grandma lie at the Loved Ones challenge. I’m not going into great detail about that because that’s a separate post, but Jon did use this lie as part of the Using The Outsiders strategy.

Worried about Tijuana, Jon approached the new outsiders, Christa and Sandra, and swore up and down on his “dead” grandma’s grave that he would go to the final four with them. With that, it was settled, and just like that a new majority was made with the people who had just become outsiders, and Tijuana was voted out.

But just like Rob proved, you don’t have to stick with an alliance, you can change alliances as many times as you want as long as you know what you’re doing. So as quickly as he used Christa and Sandra, Jon, after going on a Reward with Darrah and Lill, worked on forming a new alliance with new outsider Darrah. It helped because Darrah was on an Immunity Challenge winning streak and if somebody is going to be sticking around you might as well have them on your side. Burton still had Lill on side, even though cracks were beginning to show, and Jon brought in Darrah.

Once again, a new majority emerged, and they voted out Christa. This is where things get a little shaky because Burton and Jon went on a Reward together and the girls aligned to vote out Burton. I believe Burton takes a lot of blame for not keeping Lill on track, but Jon isn’t blame-free; he underestimated the women. Never underestimate your opponents.

Jon was now the outsider himself, but having used outsiders for his own benefit, Jon knew he could be a valuable asset to somebody. I suppose that is the flip side of the Using The Outsiders strategy, if you don’t have the ability to use outsiders then be an outsider to be used by someone else – either way you aren’t going home.

Darrah was the biggest challenge threat and she needed to be removed before the Final Immunity Challenge. Jon knew that, Sandra knew that, who knows what Lill thought. When Darrah failed to win Immunity at the final four, she was voted out.

Then to continue the similarities with Rob, Jon lost the Final Immunity Challenge, to Lill of all people, and was voted out in favour of Sandra. Another reason Jon’s game places ever so slightly above Rob’s is because I think if Jon made the Final Tribal Council he had a better chance of winning than Rob did in his season. Rob might have lost to Jenna, no way Jon loses to Lill.

Now I know what you’re thinking, this whole Using The Outsiders strategy is all well and good, but neither Rob or Jon won, they came a whisker away from winning, but that is still a loser right? Yes, you are correct.

But there is one other player who used this strategy and won. And this is a player that while respected, is very underrated when it comes to his strategic game. He is also a player that people don’t realize adopted the Using The Outsiders strategy, in fact, I didn’t realize myself just how much he used it until I researched for this post. I’m talking about Survivor Tocantins winner JT Thomas.


Hold up. What? JT, the soft-spoken Southerner with the impeccable social game who had almost the entire cast working for him to win? Yes, JT mastered the Using The Outsiders strategy in the latter half of the game and it took him to the end.

People undersell JT as a strategic player because of his alliance with Stephen Fishbach, who more often than not is credited with the scheming and plotting. But that mainly comes down to stereotypes. The nerdy New York Jew fits the archetypal role of Survivor mastermind better than the cattle ranch-working, country boy. But Stephen will be the first to admit that JT was involved in the strategic game just as much as he was.

Every time you see strategic decisions being made, JT and Stephen are together, even though the edit focuses more on Stephen for the strategic sound-bites. But when you hear confessionals from the other castaways they all say “JT and Stephen approached me” or “JT and Stephen started talking…” etc.

How J.T. arrived at the Using The Outsiders strategy was a lot different than the way Rob and Jon got there, but the end result was the same.

JT didn’t play the goofball; Tyson Apostol was fulfilling that role on the Timbira tribe, and he made it pretty far. JT had his own version of the goofball strategy. You see, there are many off-shoots of the playing the goofball strategy that have the same end results. There is playing the loveable country boy (see Colby Donaldson), the motherly figure (see Tina Wesson), the loyal friend/brother (see Ethan Zohn) and so on. The key factor is playing a role that is unassuming and non-threatening. It wouldn’t work for JT to start strutting around like Ric Flair and telling sex jokes, that wouldn’t fit his personality, instead he turned on the Southern charm and played the good ‘ol country boy because nobody is going to see that person as a strategic threat.

That’s why a lot of people were shocked with how cut-throat and strategic JT seemed in Heroes vs. Villains because they remembered him as the sweet country boy. But I urge you to go back and watch Tocantins and focus on the game JT played, particularly post-merge, and look at not only how well he played it but how similar it is to what Rob and Jon did in their first seasons.

1. JT Playing The Good ‘Ol Country Boy

One of the more impressive parts of JT’s game is that he remained unassuming despite falling into the role of tribe leader early on. When people give out tips on how to win Survivor they often say don’t put yourself in a leader position because it paints an unnecessary target on your back. And that is true, but the key phrase there is don’t PUT YOURSELF in the leader position. If you naturally fall into the leader role and the tribe accepts it then that is very different.

JT had skills that came in very useful out in the wild, fishing and building shelter and whatever, but he was never pushy about doing things his way. He suggested ideas in his soft, calm manner and his tribemates followed. The Jalapao tribe was a pretty unified tribe compared to most in Survivor history and that was because of the tone set by JT.

But no one ever suspected JT was a strategic force to worry about. He was good at camp life and easy to get along with but no one was looking at him as a serious mover and shaker, and that is what allowed him to stay on everyone’s good side. Everyone wanted to know what he was thinking, who he thought should go home, and JT was very diplomatic about things, he gave his opinion and then let the majority decide, he never forced his agenda.


2. JT Riding In The Middle

With his amiable nature and willingness to talk with everyone, JT was in an excellent position that gave him plenty of options to choose from when it came to voting people out of the game.

He made an early bond with Stephen and they pretty much made every decision together until the end. Whether it was choosing to vote out Carolina Eastwood or Sandy Burgin, or Spencer Duhm or Taj Johnson-George, or Sydney Wheeler or Taj, JT was in the prime position of picking which path to go down.

JT wasn’t forced into an alliance where whatever decision he made would be a detriment to his game, he was in a spot where whatever he chose could work for his benefit, and by proxy Stephen’s benefit. JT didn’t ride the middle in quite as flashy a way as Rob or Jon, but he played it in a smarter way because it had less risk attached.

3. From Outsider To Using The Outsiders

The Jalapao tribe went into the merge at a 6-4 disadvantage that quickly became 6-3 when Joe Dowdle had to be medically evacuated. This is yet another factor which makes JT’s win so impressive. Both Rob and Jon went into the merge with numbers, JT and his alliance worked their magic from the bottom.

Straight away, JT’s good ‘ol country boy image appealed to Benjamin ‘Coach’ Wade, who took JT aside for a chat. Coach is a player that is very obvious to read and JT knew exactly what to say. He brought up how it looked like Brendan Synnott was the leader (playing into Coach’s jealousy). He put across that Brendan must have the Hidden Immunity Idol due to his time spent on Exile Island, and he lied about knowing whether or not Taj had an idol. He also suggested, in that smooth way JT always suggests things, that if Brendan did have the idol, he’d have to be blindsided.

“I’ve seen some cracks right away. I had some ideas way before there ever was a merge. It’s hard to keep six people from different walks of life to stick together when they hate each other. So I’m just going to make sure everybody hates each other.”

If that above quote came from Boston Rob or Russell Hantz everybody would be wetting themselves about how much of a badass strategic player they were. Because it came from loveable JT people let it pass them by, but if you listen to what he is saying he is so on the ball.

JT, Stephen and Taj came into the merge as outsiders, but JT made himself available to be used: “Whatever ya’ll wanna do I’m with ya’ll.” JT and Stephen helped light the fire under Coach to take out Brendan and made themselves, and by proxy Taj, available to help Coach in pulling off that move.

But it didn’t stop there, because JT also built a bond with Brendan, so that he and Stephen also had the option of aligning with Brendan, Sierra Reed and Taj to take out Coach’s alliance. Just like how Jon made himself an available asset to be used after Burton was voted out at the final five, JT took this to a whole new level.

And if anyone still wants to question whether Stephen was actually calling the shots and JT was just following, then I refer you to “The Dragon Slayer” (Episode 8, April 9, 2009). Despite Stephen being more in favor of sticking with the Brendan, Sierra and Taj alliance, JT convinced him the Coach, Debbie Beebe, and Tyson alliance was the better option, and that’s the way they went.

JT and Stephen were now in the majority alliance, and Erinn Lobdell, Sierra Reed, and Taj were on the outside. So what do you do when you have the majority? You could sit tight and ride it out, but if they did that, then JT and Stephen knew they’d always be the bottom two in the pecking order. Or you could take a leaf out of Rob and Jon’s book and start Using The Outsiders to make some serious moves to advance yourself towards that final two.


JT set about cultivating his relationships with the outsiders in his riverside chats, which I like to call Gone Fishing With JT. Watch how many times you see JT showing someone how to fish throughout the season; it is usually one-on-one and starts as a bonding experience and eventually leads to strategy talk. It’s brilliant.

His talk with Erinn, who was always an outsider on the Timbira tribe, quickly set up a bond and a potential working relationship, and gave JT and Stephen yet another option to work with. Tyson had emerged as a serious challenge threat and therefore had a huge target on his back, so when the opportunity arose to take him out, JT and Stephen took it. Although some credit needs to be given to Erinn here for bringing up the idea to blindside Tyson (cementing her willingness to join JT and Stephen) but it was JT’s connection with Erinn that set the ball rolling.

Taj was an outsider but had loyalty to JT and Stephen from the old Jalapao tribe. Erinn had been an outsider from the beginning. And having been on the wrong side of the votes at the previous Tribal Council, and next on the chopping block, Sierra was a clear outsider. The great thing was that they didn’t even need Sierra’s vote to pull off the Tyson blindside, they made the move with just the two outsiders (Erinn and Taj) keeping Sierra at a distance.

JT and Stephen had created yet another new majority with themselves Erinn and Taj, with Coach and Debbie on the outside and Sierra as the wildcard. Pretty damn masterful for players that came into the merge at a severe numbers disadvantage. The risk now was the four old Timbira members coming together, realizing how powerful JT and Stephen were becoming, and creating a counter alliance. This was definitely how Debbie was thinking and she was right to be thinking that way.

But JT and Stephen were ready to vote out Sierra. She was an erratic player and Stephen wisely stated that he’d rather play against people whose motivations he could guess than those who are unpredictable.

JT worked on the new outsiders, Coach and Debbie, and told them he wanted them in the final four with himself and Stephen, and promised to vote out Sierra, Erinn and then Taj. As easy as that, he had them back on side and trusting him, so that they could vote out Sierra without even requiring Erinn and Taj as votes; both of whom had promised Sierra that they wouldn’t vote for her.

Any potential Timbira resurgence was stopped dead. Especially when JT lit the fuse under Sierra and got her to confront Coach about who was lying. “Lay it on us. I’m just listening,” JT said as Coach and Sierra battled with each other, throwing Debbie under the bus in the process, making sure they were never going to work together again.


Sierra was voted out, removing the wildcard and leaving JT and Stephen in another new majority with Coach and Debbie – who they had previously blindsided with the Tyson vote. Erinn and Taj were back on the outside, especially after their random votes at the last Tribal Council.

JT had promised that Erinn and Taj would be voted out next, but did he keep that promise? Of course not. Debbie was proving day by day to be a shrewd, strategic player, and when she floated the idea of potentially taking out Coach it set alarm bells ringing for JT. Watch JT’s confessional in “The Ultimate Sacrifice” (Episode 12, May 7, 2009) after Debbie brings this up. The slow drawl, the ominous Godfather style music in the background, the devilish smirk…

“Debbie is playing a very strategical game. And she’s scared right now. Debbie may be more of a loose cannon than I thought. Debbie may be up to some no good around here.” 

Watch that and tell me it isn’t straight out of Boston Rob circa Redemption Island’s play book. Then in the next scene he’s telling Debbie he loves her and how it is her, Stephen and him to the end. JT, that good ‘ol country boy that won just because everyone liked him – yeah right. JT was playing a seriously impressive, cut-throat game that was full of half-truths and full-lies, and his greatest trick was convincing the world he was honourable.

Debbie wanted Coach out next followed by Erinn and Taj, so what did JT and Stephen do? They nodded and agreed (always say yes remember). Coach wanted Taj out next, followed by Erinn, of course, JT and Stephen nodded and agreed. Their actual plan of action? Use the outsiders. So they grabbed Erinn and Taj and they voted out the trouble causer Debbie, flipping once again to create a new majority with the former outsiders. Are you keeping up?

With Debbie having voted for Coach it was easy to bring him back on side, making it seem like getting rid of Debbie was done for his benefit, when in reality Coach was next to go. Here is where JT outplayed Stephen, because although they had both agreed on sending home Coach, JT himself wasn’t going to vote for Coach because he had made a promise. Why Stephen bought or allowed that, I’m not entirely sure, because JT had broken many promises up to that point. But having it go down that way secured JT Coach’s jury vote and left Stephen looking like the villain.

At this point, the three original Jalapao were left, with the last remaining Timbira on the outside, so voting out Erinn would have been the straight forward move. But after weighing up the pros and cons, JT and Stephen decided for one last time to use the outsider to vote out Taj, believing they had a better shot at beating Erinn in the Final Immunity Challenge. JT then indeed won the Final Immunity and took Stephen to the Final Tribal Council where he won with a unanimous vote.

For JT and Stephen, it was a case of blindsiding one alliance at one Tribal Council, then jumping back to that alliance to vote with them at the following Tribal Council to regain their trust, and continuing to do that until they’d taken everyone out. It’s a beautiful game to watch unfold if you pay attention to how JT and Stephen use the outsiders.

Of course, there were other factors at play throughout the season; a lot of luck comes into Survivor, and other people were out there playing hard too. Taj played a vital role in JT and Stephen’s success, and I actually believe that Erinn is a very underrated player, but Stephen, and more importantly JT, played the best overall game and they did it by adopting the Using The Outsiders strategy.

I know this was a long post, and I thank anyone that has taken the time to read it all, and to any potential future players of Survivor that may be reading this, I hope it proved helpful (let me know if you use it and it works!).

If there is anything I hope people take away from this it would be a deeper appreciation of JT’s game in Tocantins (that man deserves a hell of a lot more credit than he gets). Other than that, just a general appreciation for the Using The Outsiders strategy, and to keep an eye out for people using it in future seasons.

Header Photo Credit: o.tacke via Compfight cc

Written by

Martin Holmes

Martin is a freelance writer from England. He’s represented by Berlin Associates for comedy writing and writes about TV and entertainment, currently for TV Insider and Vulture, previously Digital Spy, ET Canada, and Yahoo. A finalist for the Shortlist Sitcom Search in 2012 for “Siblings,” Martin received his BA in English with Creative Writing from The University of Hull. Martin is the owner and editor-in-chief of Insider Survivor.

6 responses to “Survivor Strategy: Using The Outsiders”

  1. Very good text. I really liked the analysis. I will be very happy if you continue to do this kind of posting. 😉

  2. Articles like this should be required reading by all contestants in the last few days before playing Survivor.

  3. Thanks for the write up. Great read. I think JT’s move on Heroes vs Villains is also an attempt to use the outsiders. He only misread the tribe dynamics. If he were right and Russel was on the outs, it would’ve been a major move.

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