20 Years of Survivor

The 20 Biggest Game-Changing Moves

The moves that transformed the show.

Photo: CBS

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. 

There are many good moves in Survivor, even great moves, then there are those moves that completely change the fabric of the game. I’m not just talking about the moves that impact the season; I mean the kind of moves that influence Survivor as a whole for years to come. The moves that evolve the game and influence future players and seasons. 

Today, I’m counting down the twenty biggest game-changing moves in Survivor history. These are the moves that transcended the season and profoundly impacted the evolution of Survivor

20. Shirin breaks the Survivor Auction (Worlds Apart)

Auction
Photo: CBS

If you’re wondering what happened to the Survivor Auction, look no further than Worlds Apart. Superfan Shirin gamed the system by figuring out a way for everyone to get their letters from home. “What if we all collectively decide that we will only pay a set amount for an item?” posed Shirin, knowing Jeff would sell each castaway their letter for the same price as the highest bid. And, it worked, as everyone got a letter for the measly price of $20.

Yes, the Survivor Auction was already close to extinction due to players hoarding their money until an advantage was offered. Shirin’s trick simply speeded up the process. The Survivor Auction hasn’t been seen since in Survivor US. 

19. Todd’s Final Tribal Council speech (China)

Todd FTC
Photo: CBS

It’s easy to underestimate just how influential Todd’s Final Tribal Council performance was in China. Until then, finalists would tend to downplay their lies and deceptions, as jurors still frowned upon manipulative and backstabbing gameplay. This would mean players had to recontextualize their moves to be more palatable or argue that their opponent lied more. However, Todd not only owned his lies but also presented them as the mark of a good player. In fact, to have not lied and blindsided meant you weren’t as worthy of the Sole Survivor title. 

Todd put more emphasis on the strategic game than any finalist before him. In subsequent seasons, Final Tribal would become more and more centered around strategic ability above all else. We saw this in how Russell Hantz presented his case at FTC a few years later, albeit not with the same success as Todd, and it only became more prevalent as we entered the 20s seasons and beyond. 

18. Ethan throws an Immunity Challenge (Africa)

Ethan
Photo: CBS

Ethan is remembered more for his impeccable social game than his strategic chops, but this move in Africa was some real nifty work. The young soccer player wanted to protect his allies Big Tom and Lex, who ended up on the opposing tribe following the first-ever tribe swap. And so, Ethan suggested (and convinced) his entire tribe throw the challenge so they could get rid of the irritating Silas. So simple and yet so smart, as this gave Ethan the numbers for the remainder of the game.

Sure, Richard Hatch might have stepped down from the Final Immunity Challenge in Borneo, but nobody had persuaded their whole tribe to throw a challenge until Ethan. This has been a go-to move in several seasons since, sometimes with success (Zapatera ousting Russell), and sometimes with hilarious consequences (Drew Christy). 

17. Tina flips the vote on Mitchell (Australian Outback)

Tina
Photo: CBS

This move sometimes gets lost in the pantheon of time, perhaps because a lot of it happened off-camera on the hike to Tribal Council. But Tina’s ability to see the numbers drifting from her and having the temerity and skill to reshuffle them in her favor is a landmark moment. Remember, this was only the second season, the rules of the game were still being written. All anyone had seen at this point was the Tagi 4 in Borneo picking off people one-by-one. 

Tina flipping Colby and Keith into voting out Mitchell removed the power from Jerri and put Tina into a controlling position of the Ogakor alliance. It was the first instance of someone going, “Hey, you know what? I don’t just have to follow the status quo,” and successfully changing the direction of a vote. This is commonplace in Survivor now and has been done with more flair and drama since, but Tina was the first to prove it was possible. 

16. Chris puts himself in the fire-making challenge (Edge of Extinction)

Chris U
Photo: CBS

The jury is still out on how much this move will influence Survivor going forward, but I think we already saw its effects in Winners At War. Chris needed to go big upon his late return to the game in Edge of Extinction, and part of that was volunteering to take on Rick in the fire-making challenge. It’s pretty much the move that won him the game. And it’s the move that partly lost Natalie Anderson the game two seasons later.

Remember, the last thing the cast of season 40 saw before leaving to film Winners At War was Chris’s victory. This put a certain expectation on the Edge returnee. Natalie’s choice not to play in the fire-making challenge was held against her by some jurors. And it will be interesting to see if this becomes a thing in future seasons, even without the EOE in play. Will we see more Final Immunity winners putting themselves in the hot-seat to curry favor with the jury? 

15. JT crosses the threshold (Game Changers)

JT Game Changers
Photo: CBS

The evolution of Tribal Council has been fascinating to watch over the years. It started as this almost solemn, sacred setting where players kept their cards close to the chest. With each passing season, Tribal became more dramatic: arguments, theatrics, whispering, Probstisms. Then, in Game Changers, JT took things to the next level. 

During a two-tribe Tribal, the Tocantins champ got up out of his seat and walked across the set to whisper to Brad Culpepper. This kicked off a chain-reaction of hushed huddles. Nowadays, this Tribal chaos happens at least once every season. Some might argue it occurs too much now. But I don’t see it going away any time soon. 

14. Sandra perfects the “as long as it ain’t me” strategy (Pearl Islands, Heroes vs. Villains)

Sandra
Photo: CBS

Self-preservation is a key part of Survivor, and no player embodied that more than Sandra. It’s not that Sandra never had gameplans or goals, it’s just that, when it came down to it, her main objective was to get to the end and win. If that meant losing an ally or getting in bed with the enemy, so be it. “As long as it ain’t me” was more than just a catchphrase; it was an ethos Sandra lived by in the game. That’s what made it all the more shocking she gave her away her idol to save Denise in Winners At War.

The fact that Sandra won twice with this strategy legitimized it for future castaways. How many players have we seen utter those famous words since? And how many have referenced Sandra while saying it? There is a reason the show built a giant statue of her head. Sandra set the standard for self-preservation gameplay. 

13. Yau-Man makes a fake idol (Fiji)

Yau Man Idol
Photo: CBS

Yau-Man was such a creative and forward-thinking player, and there’s no better example of that than his fake idol stunt in Fiji. Sure, his poorly painted coconut shell wouldn’t win any prizes for presentation, and yes, it never came into play in the game. Still, the idea itself was brilliantly innovative and immediately replicated the next season when Ozzy carved the infamous effing stick idol. And then perfected further by master craftsman Bob the season after that. 

Fake idols are now just as regular as real idols and have come in all shapes and sizes over the years. Survivor itself has even started to encourage knock-off idols in recent seasons by offering “fake idol-making kits.” So, while Yau-Man didn’t get to put his coconut husk to use, he set the trend for many seasons to come. 

12. “Why don’t we vote off Edgardo? (Fiji)

Stacy
Photo: CBS

Sticking with Fiji for a moment, we need to talk about the Edgardo blindside and the quick-thinking from Stacy Kimball. It was a crucial post-merge vote, and the Syndicate alliance was preparing for an idol play from the Four Horsemen alliance. Mookie had an idol and was planning to give it to his ally Alex, something which double agent Dreamz told the Syndicate about. But could they really trust that info? What if Mookie decided to play the idol for himself?

Stacy suggested piling the votes on Edgardo, the least threatening member of the Horsemen. It’s another one of those ideas that sounds so simple. Of course you would target the person least likely to receive the idol! But someone has to be the first to think of it. Stacy’s strategy worked, creating one of the best blindsides ever, and became a staple move in idol play in every season after that. 

11. Malcolm performs for the jury (Philippines, Caramoan)

Malcolm
Photo: CBS

There had been players with one eye on the jury in the past. Sophie is a good example of someone who tailored her Tribal answers to the jurors. But Malcolm really turned jury pandering up a notch. Malcolm transformed Tribal Council into an elaborate theater performance, putting on a show for those observing from the sidelines. The most blatant examples are with his idol taunting in Philippines and in Caramoan with the thrilling double idol play

Players performing for the jury is now a massive part of the post-merge game. You can often see castaways and jurors sharing a nod or a smile or a wink. A successful idol play is usually followed by an acknowledgment of the jury (see Ben Driebergen or Rick Devens). When a player answers Jeff’s question, they’re not just trying to appease the host, but frame themselves positively in front of the jury (see Sarah Lacina’s speech in Winners At War). 

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10. The Black Widow Brigade devours the competition (Micronesia)

Black Widow Brigade
Photo: CBS

There had been all-women alliances previously (Vanuatu comes to mind instantly), but none as successful as Micronesia‘s Black Widow Brigade. The alliance of Alexis Jones, Amanda Kimmel, Cirie Fields, Parvati Shallow, and Natalie Bolton spun webs around their tribemates and did it with a smile on their faces. Their effectiveness in pulling the wool over people’s eyes made them one of the deadliest alliances in Survivor history.

The success of the Black Widow Brigade impacted Survivor in a couple of ways. Its members, particularly Cirie and Parvati, cemented their legacies and became highly influential for future players (how many young women still list Parvati as the “player they’re most like”?). But it also made the term “girls’ alliance” one of the most feared things in all of Survivor. So many seasons since Micronesia have seen men talking of the dreaded “girls’ alliance,” even when such a thing doesn’t exist. It’s still happening to this day and was even brought up as a point of contention by Kellee Kim in last year’s Island of the Idols

9. Cao-Boi invents the vote split (Cook Islands)

Cao Boi
Photo: CBS

As discussed in our recent 20 Best Pre-Merge Characters list, Cao Boi is one of Survivor‘s more unique personalities. You can tell how eccentric he was because even his brilliant plans arrived in curious fashion. And this is one of them. The superbly named “Plan Voodoo” came to Cao Boi in a dream. His idea was to split the votes between Candice and Penner to flush out a potential idol. Even master strategist Yul was impressed, perhaps that was part of the reason he voted Cao Boi out that same episode, too big of a threat!

It’s another one of those moves where the originator didn’t get to put it into action. But splitting the votes to flush an idol became a standard Survivor strategy that is still used to this day. 

8. Fairplay’s dead grandma lie (Pearl Islands)

Fairplay
Photo: CBS

When Jonny Fairplay lied about his grandma’s death to garner sympathy from his tribemates, it shocked the Survivor world. It was one of those moves that transcended the show and became a pop-culture moment. But it also had a significant impact on the game itself. I don’t mean we started seeing multiple players lying about dead loved ones, but it pushed the game of deception to new limits. It sort of took the reigns off and opened up a new world of possibilities for crafty Survivor players.

Just two seasons later, Twila swore on her kid’s life as part of her strategy, something she received backlash for at the time (but has been done countless times since, even by two-time winner Tony). Russell Hantz would later lie about losing his home and pet dog in Hurricane Katrina. And, while not Survivor US, over in Australia, a contestant made up a fake child in an attempt to bond with his tribemates. 

7. Russell finds idols without a clue (Samoa)

Russell Idol
Photo: CBS

Before the comments come in, I know that Gary Hogeboom “technically” found the first idol without a clue in Guatemala. But Gary had Judd as a guide (“It’s definitely on the ground.”) and some sense of where the idol was. Russell didn’t have any hint of where to look when he decided to just start searching. For whatever flaws Russell might have as a player, his innovation is undeniable. Nobody had found (or even bothered to look for) an idol without a clue before Russell came along.

Nowadays, it can be mere minutes into the game and players are already darting into the jungle to look for idols. Scavenger hunts are now a regular part of the show, for better or worse. Finding idols without clues is such a common occurrence now that some seasons the producers don’t bother including clues at all. 

6. Cirie pulls off a 3-2-1 vote (Panama)

Cirie
Photo: CBS

Cirie is regarded as one of Survivor‘s best players ever and for a good reason. She is not only a superb social player but also an incredible strategist. And this 3-2-1 vote in Panama is one of her greatest strategic accomplishments. Just think how difficult it must be to pull off a vote without using the majority of the tribe AND keeping three people in the dark. That requires expert skill and timing.

If you need a refresher, it was the final six, the majority “agreed” to target Aras, but Cirie was worried about Shane and Terry dragging Courtney Marit to the end as a goat. So, Cirie pulled in Aras and Danielle to vote for Courtney while convincing Shane that the vote had flipped to Danielle. All this while keeping the real plan a secret from Courtney, Shane, and Terry, resulting in a first-ever 3-2-1 vote against Courtney later that night.

The reason this is such a game-changing move is for similar reasons to Fairplay’s dead grandma lie. It blew open the doors of possibilities for strategic gameplay. Cirie showed there were more than one or two ways to approach a vote, there were multiple avenues. You didn’t always need the majority of the tribe, there were plurality vote options. This move increased the game’s complexity, as evidenced by the very next season with Yul and his number-crunching game theories.  

5. Ciera forces a rock draw (Blood vs. Water)

Ciera Rocks
Photo: CBS

It had been eleven years since we’d last seen a rock draw on Survivor. It was so long ago that people never expected to see one again. But, at the final six of Blood vs. Water, the unthinkable happened. After finally realizing she was on the bottom of the majority, Ciera forced rocks in a desperate attempt to improve her position. It was high drama, and while the move itself didn’t work out for Ciera, it would become a monumental moment in shaping modern Survivor

If you were to pinpoint the birth of the “big moves” era, this would be the move. Sure, there had been flashy idol plays and blindsides before then, but Ciera’s gamble here was presented as the kind of big move gameplay required of future castaways. And Ciera herself would become the mascot for the “big moves” era in her second appearance. It’s no coincidence that the season that followed saw Tony’s rise to the top, and just six seasons later, we witnessed another rock draw. 

4. Russell successfully plays an idol for Parvati (Heroes vs. Villains)

Russell
Photo: CBS

As previously mentioned, Russell shook things up in Samoa with his idol finding skills. But he wasn’t done changing all the rules when it came to idols. While Mookie and Sugar had handed over idols to allies previously, Russell was the first person to make a show of it at Tribal and it work successfully. When Russell stood up in Heroes vs. Villains and announced he was playing his idol for Parvati (“No, not this way.”), it was a genuinely jawdropping moment. Boston Rob was so bamboozled by the move he described Russell as a “kamikaze” with no regard for his own game. 

This bold play allowed Russell to take control of the game, but it also became a staple move in seasons to come. I mean, just a few Tribals later, Parvati outdid Russell’s game-changing gesture by handing over two idols of her own, completely destroying the Heroes’ chances. Saving an ally with an idol is no longer an unusual occurrence. It’s a valid, frequent, and sometimes game-defining move. 

3. The Rotu 4 is overthrown (Marquesas)

Rotu 4
Photo: CBS

Borneo set the standard of Survivor gameplay, and while Tina had shaken things up a little bit in season two, things mostly followed the same pattern. The game rarely deviated from original tribal lines, and that made for a predictable post-merge. Things looked to be heading the same way in Marquesas, as Sean and Vecepia waited to be picked off by the Rotu majority. Then came the Coconut Chop challenge and an uprising that totally flipped the game and pushed Survivor into new territory.

With the Rotu 4 showing their hand at the challenge, Sean and Vecepia took the opportunity to convince Kathy, Neleh, and Paschal to flip on their original alliance and create a new majority. We’d seen attempts at this kind of overthrowing of power just a season earlier, with Kelly Goldsmith, but the plan soon fell apart. Here, it actually works, as the Rotu 4 is toppled, and tribe leader John Carroll is blindsided in one of the show’s most historic votes. The legacy of the move was then cemented when underdog Vecepia went on to win the whole season.

The success of the alliance flip breathed new life into Survivor at a time when people thought the game had reached its limit. It showed that tribal lines weren’t set in stone and that the underdogs still had a chance. 

2. Rob Cesternino flip-flops (The Amazon)

Rob C
Photo: CBS

By 2003, we had seen players flip on their original alliances, but for the most part, the gameplay was still relatively rigid. Then Rob Cesternino came along in season six and completely transformed the game. Rob blazed a trail through The Amazon hotter than a stack of burning firewood. He was the first real superfan to play Survivor, somebody who loved the game aspect more so than the adventure and survival components. And Rob wanted to prove he was the best player Survivor had ever seen.

Rob didn’t stick to original tribal alliances. Like Tina before him, he shuffled the deck in his favor. But unlike Tina, Rob did this several times. If things weren’t falling his way, he would flip and create a new alliance with the underdogs on the bottom. A lesser player would have been immediately called out and booted. But Rob had such a charm he was able to sneak his way back into people’s good graces—before burning them again a vote or two later. 

This masterful, flip-flopping gameplay was thrilling to watch, and like Cirie would later do with the 3-2-1 vote, it showed that Survivor could be a more complex and fluid game than it might have first appeared. Rob’s highly strategic gameplay undoubtedly changed the way the game was played moving forward. The next season saw Fairplay succeeding with a similar flip-flopping strategy. And fluidly moving alliances and temporary voting blocs became a central part of Survivor.

1. The formation of the Tagi 4 alliance (Borneo)

Tagi 4
Photo: CBS

The previous moves on this list might be flashier or more dramatic, but who knows what game Survivor would have become without this initial move? Who knows if Survivor would still be going at all? So let’s travel back to the year 2000 and the island of Pulau Tiga. 

While Stacey Stillman might have toyed with the idea of a voting bloc first, it was the Tagi 4 that successfully solidified the first true Survivor alliance. By organizing their votes, Kelly Wiglesworth, Richard Hatch, Rudy Boesch, and Sue Hawk, completely changed the complexion of Survivor from a wilderness survival show into a game of strategic deception. Their impact was enormous, and not just in gameplay, but in the success of the show. Everyone was talking about “the alliance” and whether it was ethically acceptable or not. 

The success of the Tagi 4 and the fact its leader Richard won the season set the blueprint for every season that followed. There isn’t a single season of Survivor that doesn’t include an alliance. It’s the core element of Survivor gameplay that these days happens almost immediately upon hitting the beach. If the Tagi 4 didn’t perfect the alliance, Survivor US could have wound up like several of its international counterparts, where individual survival skill is favored and strategic gameplay derided as “evil.”

Thank the Survivor Gods for the Tagi 4.

Stay tuned to Inside Survivor for more 20 Years of Survivor content over the coming weeks.


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.


7 responses to “The 20 Biggest Game-Changing Moves”

  1. When people wonder what Survivor would be if the Tagi alliance hadn’t happened, I always think of the French Survivor.

    I haven’t watched it in many years, but for the first season, strategy was pretty much non-existent.
    After a few seasons, some players started developing attempts at strategy, but it was frowned upon both by the other players (you would get voted as soon as you were “found out”) and sadly by production too. If you were a strategist, you were automatically pictured as a villain, not mentioning some terrible game dynamics designed to reduce strategy to a minimum such as when merge comes, each team chooses one captain to discuss the terms of the merge such as what beach to use for the merged tribe (I think I remember they did this in Survivor for season one, right?), but also both captains have to agree and vote out a player, any player (and I think that if they can’t agree on a player, one is chosen randomly). Usually the one showing the most strategic spirit gets the axe then.
    And finally there is the horrible final four (I don’t know nowadays, but last time I watched it was still a final two for final tribal) which is not a tribal council, but a challenge. If you finish last, you’re out of the game, that’s all. And the final immunity challenge is the same every season; standing on poles for as long as possible.

    So every time I wonder “what if there were no Tagi Alliance?”, I think of the French Survivor and shudder.
    Because of all of that, I credit Richard Hatch as the co-inventor of Survivor.

    • Totally in tune with David.

      Being Belgian, i grew up with Koh Lanta, AKA French Survivor, and totally fell in love with Survivor upon discovering it, a somewhat mad love with binge-watching mecanisms in the following months and years.

      Koh Lanta is a somewhat painful Survivor lookalike who doesn’t succeed in discarting the awful preconception of “Mérite” (” Who deserve it better ?”).
      With a strong tendancy to force a narrative with strategists being pathetic vilains and athletes being noble Heroes.

      The narrative is stronger thanks to a very “simpleton-like” audience who fully bites in the “Merite” philosophy and is very bitter, short minded and mean on social network…
      Colby, Ozzy, Joe would be SuperStars on this show ..

      Thanks Mister Hatch indeed for co creating a less hypocrite show allowing way more deep meta-imagery on our society… and way more fun !

    • I love Tony, but I don’t think the spy shacks (etc) changed the game going foward. Tony himself kept evolving his spy shack, but didn’t really influence others.

  2. Great article, as always, Martin. Thank you!
    I’m wondering, do you plan to write an overview of the best (or the most impressive) moves, regardless of whether they changed the game as a whole or not? I think there are a lot of great moves that might not change the game necessarily, but that deserve the spotlight for their ballsiness, inovation or delicacy (such as Parvati’s double play idol, Tony pulling off a 5-4-3 in WaW, Aubry persuading Tai to flip using just her social skills, first successfull minority split in DvG or the Knights’ of the Roundtable conovoluted plan to vote off JP and Joe).

    • Thank you! Possibly. I’m trying to think up lists that haven’t been done quite as much before. As there are a lot of “best players, best moves, best blindsides” type lists available. But we’ll see!

  3. Thank you so much for including Tina’s game-changing move. I think that she is one of the most under-rated players ever.

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