In celebration of Survivor’s 20th anniversary, over the next couple of months, Inside Survivor is publishing a series of articles looking back at the show’s history, best moments, and most memorable characters.
Winning Survivor takes a whole combination of things: strategy, social skills, timing, strength, endurance, and, perhaps most importantly, a little bit of luck. It’s that last factor we’re interested in today because, with another stroke of luck, the results of any given season could look a whole lot different.
You can have all the social ability in the world and play the best strategic game ever, but sometimes, luck doesn’t go your way or one mistake ends it all. But that doesn’t take away from your overall performance and skill as a Survivor player. Some of the best games we’ve ever seen on Survivor didn’t result in a million-dollar check in the end.
Today, Inside Survivor contributor Justin Simons counts down twenty of the best non-winning games in Survivor history.
20. Kelley Wentworth (Cambodia)
During the hardest fought season of all time, Kelley Wentworth put up as big a fight as anyone. Proving she was worthy of her spot on the cast, Wentworth made one of the most daring moves of all time, being the first to grab an idol at a challenge. Her manipulation skills proved to be strong as well, as, at the final twelve, she managed to get Joe to reveal to her that she was the target, leading to one of the most impressive and iconic idol plays of all time. On top of that, Wentworth’s social game was fantastic, as she was seemingly the only player on the entire cast who might have beaten Jeremy in the end and was one drop of the ball away from a million dollars.
19. Taj Johnson-George (Tocantins)
Often overlooked due to her Jalapao counterparts, Taj’s social game throughout Survivor: Tocantins was nothing short of stellar. She was a part of the most important alliance of the season with Stephen and JT that completely dominated the game until the final four. She was also the nucleus of the cross tribe Exile alliance, which gave her numerous options at the merge. While her strong social game was ultimately her demise, as she was cut short due to her popularity with the jury, the final four vote served as a contrast between the social games of herself and Erinn, as while she was in Stephen and JT’s alliance, she was the far bigger threat.
18. Chrissy Hofbeck (Heroes vs. Healers vs. Hustlers)
Chrissy proved to be the best player on HvHvH from both a strategic, physical, and social standpoint. She had an extremely strong bond with both Ryan and Devon and even got Ryan to flip on his old ally Ali in a crucial pre-merge vote. Chrissy completely dismantled the Healers tribe, getting Ryan to vote off Roark and getting both Joe and Dr. Mike to waste their idols. On top of that, she also tied the record for Individual Immunity wins for a woman. If this wasn’t enough to get her on the list, the fact she most likely would have won the season if not for the then-new fire-making twist most certainly does.
17. Rafe Judkins (Guatemala)
One of Survivor’s first strategic masterminds, Rafe played what is perhaps one of the most underrated games of all time. Having controlled every single vote of his season, Rafe proved to be an incredibly dominant force throughout the season. He also only made one mistake the entire game, when he permitted Danni to vote him out at the final three. His social game was excellent as well, as he would beat anyone else on the cast in the final two and was one Immunity challenge away from being one of Survivor’s best winners.
16. Tasha Fox (Cagayan)
Tasha played the first half of the game perfectly during Survivor: Cagayan, and while she did lose control later in the game, it wasn’t because of any faults of her own. She was in complete control of every vote she attended during the pre-merge and played a key role in taking out potential power players in David and Alexis. She also made a masterful stroke at the merge getting Tony and LJ to waste their idols on each other. Tasha also proved a competent underdog, tieing the record for Individual Immunity wins for a woman. And if she’d have won Immunity at the final six, she would have had a good shot at winning the season.
15. Ciera Eastin (Blood vs. Water)
The exact opposite of Tasha, Ciera’s game was weak earlier in the season but finished really strong. Ciera showed a willingness to vote out anyone if it meant helping her in the game when she voted out her mom. She also showed that her social game was nothing to scoff at either, as Caleb saved her due to being more likable than Brad, and she was in the majority for the entire season until the rock draw. Speaking of the rock draw, that Tribal Council highlighted Ciera as a fiercely bold player who’d do anything to win, and if Tyson had drawn the odd rock, she likely would have.
14. Victoria Baamonde (Edge of Extinction)
Victoria was a fantastic player on Survivor: Edge of Extinction, both socially and strategically. She blindsided Aubry, a three-time Survivor veteran, with an idol in her pocket. She was in the majority for every vote until her eventual boot on day 36. And she was a crucial swing vote in taking out key power players such as Eric and Wardog. On top of that, Victoria might have won the season if Chris hadn’t come back from the Edge at the final five and turned the game upside down.
13. Jonny Fairplay (Pearl Islands)
Taking after Rob Cesternino from the season prior, Jonny Fairplay dominated Survivor: Pearl Islands from start to finish. He helped orchestrate the blindsides of big players such as Rupert and Andrew Savage. He also proved to be a fantastic liar at the final seven loved ones visit when he infamously convinced his tribe that his grandma had passed away. And if that wasn’t enough, he also made the best strategic move up to that point in Survivor history when he voted out Tijuana out of fear of a brewing all woman’s alliance.
12. Amanda Kimmel (China)
The best female runner up of all time proved during Survivor: China that she was a fantastic social and strategic player. Serving as Todd’s right-hand man the entire game, Amanda was always in the majority and even pulled off one of the best blindsides in the history of Survivor by voting off James with two idols. Her only major mistake was her Final Tribal Council performance, and if hers is a little bit better and Todd’s is a little bit worse, things could have turned out very differently.
11. Malcolm Freberg (Philippines)
Having played perfectly until the final four in Survivor: Philippines, Malcolm’s game was undeniably one of the best that didn’t result in a win. Being half of one of Survivor’s greatest duos with Denise allowed Malcolm to control every Tribal he attended in the pre-merge. He also had a very tight alliance with Lisa and Skupin, and ingratiating himself with the two of them (outclassing Abi, Pete, Artis, Carter, and Penner along the way) is ultimately what got him all the way to the final four. Once there, Malcolm made a mistake in targeting Denise, but that’s not enough to undo the fantastic game Malcolm had played until that point.
10. Cydney Gillon (Kaoh Rong)
Cydney was the best player in Survivor: Kaoh Rong on route to a fourth-place finish. She accomplished what few have: forming an alliance that would last the entire game. Not only did Cydney form the alliance, but she made sure they stuck together the entire season, and after blindsiding Nick, took out Debbie and Julia, and completely outplayed Jason and Scot. While Cydney’s quest for the million came up just short, she played brilliantly throughout the season, and if she could have just started her flame, who knows how Final Tribal would have turned out.
9. David Wright (Millennials vs. Gen X)
On what was arguably the most strategic cast of new players of all time, David was perhaps the most strategic of them all. He made a pivotal move in the pre-merge when he blindsided Lucy and gained Jessica as a number. He displayed amazing flexibility by flipping on his ally CeCe at the swap. And even after he lost the numbers after a rock draw, he recovered very smoothly by convincing Will to flip, then blindsiding Will a vote later. David would have hands down beaten anyone else in the cast in the final three, and having all that put together is a big accomplishment.
8. Rob Cesternino (The Amazon)
Mr. Know it all himself was Survivor’s first-ever strategic tour de force. Players that would have been considered elite if they had played in prior seasons such as Alex and Deena were entirely outmatched by Rob, as he blindsided both of them. Rob also managed Matthew and Jenna perfectly until the final three and used Matthew as a vote in his corner for the entire game. Getting the other women to blindside Shawna at the swap was also one of the best moves of the early seasons. One Immunity challenge away from winning the whole thing, Rob played a masterful strategic game that heavily influenced the evolution of Survivor.
7. Yau-Man Chan (Fiji)
If Earl Cole is one of Survivor’s best winners, Yau-Man is easily one of the best non-winners. He was among the first to perfect the safe vote by voting off Edgardo while duping Dreamz. He was the first person to successfully play an idol, which showed great social reads. Yau-Man was also the first person to make a fake idol, a strategy we would see replicated time and time again. He also managed the jury really well, as he would have beaten anyone (except for possibly Earl himself) in the end.
6. Stephen Fishbach (Tocantins)
The knowingest know-it-all played one of the best strategic games of all time in Survivor: Tocantins. He dominated his original tribe and had immensely tight bonds with both Taj and JT. Despite being in the minority at the merge, Stephen’s powerful social game got him into the Timbira tribe alliance, and they made the mistake of trusting him, as he blindsided them one by one. In spite of that, Stephen would have most likely gotten the majority of the jury votes in the end if he wasn’t against JT and the fact that I can say that makes Stephen’s game in Tocantins one of the best ever.
5. Sarah Lacina (Winners at War)
Sarah dominated a cast of all winners and proved that she belongs in Survivor royalty. We saw a contrast between her and Adam’s games when she got Kim, Tyson, Nick, and Michele to make a terrible strategic move to benefit her game. We saw a contrast between the social games of her and Boston Rob when she got Adam and Ben to save her over him at the swap. Except for the final nine blindside and the final four fire-making contest, every time Sarah went to Tribal, she got her way. At one point or another, she outplayed every single one of the greatest of the greats and had fire-making gone her way, Sarah could be sitting here a two-time winner.
4. Rob Mariano (All-Stars)
Boston Rob controlled every single vote of Survivor: All-Stars and remains to this day as arguably one of Survivor’s most robbed runners up. He got the best of strategic forces such as Rob C, Lex, and Kathy. He used his manipulation skills to turn the likes of Big Tom and Rupert against each other. Everything Rob wanted to happen happened, including at the reunion show when he proposed to Amber. Unfortunately, his jury management wasn’t strong enough to secure that final vote he needed to win. However, it’s still one of the most dominant games Survivor has ever seen, even if he came up just short.
3. Spencer Bledsoe (Cagayan)
This strategic mastermind had proven to perfect the art of manipulation during his time on Survivor: Cagayan. If you consider Tony the greatest player ever, you should probably consider Spencer one of the best non-winners ever. Spencer completely outplayed Tony at the merge when he got the New Jersey cop and LJ to waste their idols on each other. And, at the final seven, Spencer made Tony so paranoid about a non-existent girls alliance that he managed to save himself. Spencer was so close to the end and most likely would have beaten anyone on the cast in the final two.
2. Cirie Fields (Micronesia)
Here is another player who dominated her season and was in the majority at every Tribal until her eventual demise. Cirie had three masterstrokes in Micronesia. She turned the Fans against Joel, turned the women against Ozzy (so they could blindside him with an idol in his pocket), and helped pull off the most impressive and entertaining move of all time when she got Erik to give up his Individual Immunity to Natalie. Cirie cruised to the final three with a smile on her face, and if not for the high amount of quits and medical evacuation forcing a final two, there is no doubt she would have won comfortably. The fact that she played so impressively both strategically and socially and only lost due to factors out her control makes Cirie one of Survivor’s best players ever.
1. Domenick Abbate (Ghost Island)
When it comes to Domenick, you could put him at number one for ensuring that Wendell was in his corner at the merge when he voted off Bradley, blindsiding his arch-nemesis with a two time only idol, pulling off one of the most impressive split votes of all time by voting off Libby, or for having completely outclassed everyone on his cast with the exception of Wendell. But what really puts Domenick at number one was being the non-winner that came the closest to winning the game. He made history along with Wendell when they became the first two players to tie in jury votes. All Domenick needed to lock up the victory was one more vote, and if he got that, he’d go down as an elite Survivor winner.
Stay tuned to Inside Survivor for more 20 Years of Survivor content over the coming weeks.