I have mixed feelings about that tribe swap. On the one hand, it was something new and different, with fate sending Julia alone to the Brawn beach, and effectively ending the game for one of her tribemates. But on the other, it did seem to be quite unfair, especially since it ended in Anna being sent home, even though she was in a strong position and had seemingly made no errors in her game to this point. I’m not sure why they made the decision to swap with odd numbers- both of these tribes would have been much more interesting had Alecia been in the mix. More importantly, in letting the tribes know that whoever was voted out would be replaced by Julia, it made the strategic decision easy. A beauty had to go. I think that if Julia wasn’t in the mix, Aubry would certainly have been tempted to vote against Peter. But if she had sent Peter home this week, she would have been on the wrong side of the numbers if they lost the next immunity challenge. The Gondol tribe made the logical move in voting Anna out.
With Julia coming in to replace whoever would be voted out, I’m not sure what else Anna could have done. She had tried to convince the rest of the tribe to vote out Tai instead. If she had been trying to convince them to vote out Nick, Michele or Julia, she might have had a chance. Unfortunately for her, Tai is extremely likable. People want to be around him, and they also don’t see him as a strategic threat. On Know-It-Alls this week, Stephen and Rob discussed something really interesting- that when the rest of the tribe perceive you as weak, it puts you in a strong position. Anna was viewed as too manipulative. She was a real threat to win. Tai is viewed as goofy, fun, and easily manipulated. Anna had very little hope of actually convincing the others to keep her around in favour of Tai. Tai isn’t the only player out there who is being underestimated. And for that reason, this week’s lesson in Survivor history comes to us from season 15, Survivor: China, and the ninth place finisher, Anna’s fellow professional poker player/Survivor player, Jean-Robert Bellande.
Jean-Robert started the game on the Fei Long tribe. As a poker player, he wanted to play the game strategically, and his biggest strategy was to manipulate the way that the other players perceived him. Although he was one of the bigger and stronger members of the tribe, Jean-Robert deliberately limited the amount of work he did around camp. His theory was that not only would he not be targeted for his strength, but that the rest of the tribe would get used to him not contributing much to camp life. At a later stage in the game, he planned to change his ways and start working much harder. He thought he would get more strategic benefit from working hard late in the game than he would from being a workhorse all along. If he had always been a hard worker, he would have been taken for granted. This way, he reasoned, his work would be noticed, and therefore appreciated.
In the meantime, as Jean-Robert was lying around camp, he was making enemies. Courtney Yates couldn’t stand him, not only for his laziness, but also for some dismissive comments that Jean-Robert had made about her. Leslie Nease also wanted Jean-Robert out, mostly because she also clashed with his personality. Despite the best efforts of Courtney and Leslie, when Fei Long lost immunity, Jean-Robert’s strength in the challenges kept him around, and Leslie was voted out.
In part, Jean-Robert’s strategy worked. Nobody saw him as a threat. To Fei Long, he was more of an annoyance. He seemed easily disposable. The trouble was that in going to so much trouble to manipulate the way that the tribe saw him, Jean-Robert had failed to make any real allies. James Clement valued the challenge strength of Jean-Robert and was happy to work with him, but when a twist in the game sent James to the opposing tribe, Jean-Robert was friendless. He still had Courtney actively working to get him out. Jean-Robert had also gained himself another enemy when he accused Todd Herzog of being untrustworthy. Frightened that Jean-Robert would blow up his game, Todd began to look for a way to vote him out.
Despite being in a shaky position, Jean-Robert continued to act in the same way that he had throughout the game. When Fei Long lost James, they had gained two members of the opposing tribe, Sherea Lloyd and Frosti Zernow. Jean-Robert felt some safety, as he was sure that they would be voted out before him. When Fei Long lost immunity, despite Todd and Courtney both wanting to send Jean-Robert home, it was Sherea who was deemed a bigger threat, and she was voted out.
It isn’t a bad idea to try and be underestimated. Jean-Robert had the right idea. He didn’t want to be seen as a threat to win. However, while being underestimated is good, being disliked is completely different. Jean-Robert now had both Todd and Courtney against him- and unlike Jean-Robert, Todd and Courtney both had friends in the game. By alienating the tribe, Jean-Robert had put himself into a position where he could not win the game. When the two tribes merged, James no longer had any interest in working with Jean-Robert. When Jean-Robert brought up the idea of blindsiding James (who was in possession of two immunity idols), Todd ensured that it would be Jean-Robert who was blindsided instead, much to the delight of Courtney.
Jean-Robert’s story illustrates two things about being underestimated in Survivor. Firstly, it is one thing to downplay your social game, but you still have to be personable. You have to give people a reason to want you around. Secondly, I don’t think that playing to be underestimated was ever going to succeed for someone like Jean-Robert. It isn’t the right strategy for everybody. Some people this season are playing the same game as Jean-Robert, hoping that they are being underestimated, hoping that they are manipulating the way people are perceiving them, and not realising that they are setting themselves up to lose. Others are using a similar strategy to Jean-Robert, but coupling being underestimated with a successful social game. It will be interesting to see if this approach wins the game.
Debbie is someone who is playing the Jean-Robert game, trying to make sure that people don’t see her as a threat to win the game. She’s gleefully making her moves, knowing that nobody is noticing anything that she is doing. There’s a key difference to Debbie’s game, and that is that people seem to like her. Jean-Robert wanted to be seen as lazy. Debbie wants to be seen as eccentric. And Debbie’s strategy is definitely superior. Jean-Robert made people believe that he was lazy. But in doing so, he set the tribe against him. Debbie has everyone believing that she is goofy and clueless, but people want her around. She hasn’t made any enemies, and unlike Jean-Robert, Debbie actually has made allies. We know that she’s a close pair with Joe, and this week showed that she and Neal aren’t just a marriage of convenience either. People are underestimating her, but they like her.
Despite the fact that Debbie’s social skills make her a better player than Jean-Robert, I think ultimately she will suffer a similar fate and lose the game. It is all well and good to be underestimated, but you have to start gaining some respect from people that will be sitting on the jury. I haven’t seen Debbie attempt to gain respect from everybody- she seems to be really enjoying her position under the radar. There was also a red flag raised when she was talking with Cydney. Cydney walked away from their conversation describing Debbie as a ‘motherly figure’. As unfair as it is, the motherly figure is not who you want to be in Survivor. Debbie is a mother, and it is a part of who she is. She can’t completely disassociate herself from the role. But when it comes time to vote and give someone the million dollar prize, the mom always has a rough time.
Cydney’s game has also been following the Jean-Robert blueprint, and she has been carefully controlling the way people perceive her. Like Debbie, Cydney has managed to stay likable while playing an under the radar game, and she has got allies. Nobody is out to get Cydney, everyone wants to work with her.
After talking with Debbie, Cydney told the audience in confessional that “I’ve been playing the dumb jock.” She’s been trying to get people to see her as someone who isn’t really playing the game, who is easily manipulated. And so far, she seems to have succeeded. But what I think is really brilliant about the way that Cydney is playing the game is how adaptable she seems to be. On the Brawn tribe, she was the dumb jock. She sensed the kind of person that Jason and Scot were looking for, and she became that person. But when talking with Debbie, she realised that Debbie wasn’t looking to work with a dumb jock. Debbie told Cydney that the reason she wanted to work with her was because Debbie thought Cydney was smart. Debbie told Cydney that she wanted a woman to win the season. And immediately Cydney stopped playing the role of the dumb jock. Unlike Debbie, I think that Cydney can see the necessity of gaining people’s respect. While it is all well and good to try and make sure you aren’t the biggest threat out there, I think the time for being underestimated is gone. The jury phase is about to begin, and now you want to play for respect.
Jean-Robert was correct in his initial thinking. It is important to control the perceptions of your tribemates. You don’t want to be voted out for being too big of a threat. But when we start to get close to the merge, if you don’t have the respect of any of your tribemates, you aren’t going to be able to convince them to give you a million dollar vote. Jean-Robert failed to adapt his game. Cydney, on the other hand, is switching gears at exactly the right time. From the moment that she agreed to vote Darnell out, she was in a precarious spot on the Brawn tribe. Wisely, she kept her head down while more volatile players destroyed their own games. Now, as a swing vote, she’s in a position of power, and she can assert her presence in the game. Cydney is the one player who has surprised me the most this season. Her pre-season video promised me multiple personalities and general craziness, and instead, she seems to have all the natural skills to do well in the game.
Having your tribe underestimate you doesn’t work for everyone. I still believe that had Joe Anglim tried to downplay how good he was at challenges last season, it wouldn’t have worked. He came into the game with a reputation, and he had to live up to it. Similarly, Scot singlehandedly completed the challenge for the Gondol tribe this episode. Jeff Probst called him a “workhorse for his tribe”. Someone as huge as Scot cannot go into the game hoping to fly under the radar. It simply isn’t going to happen. In Cagayan, fellow NBA player Cliff Robinson was playing a very under the radar style of game, but that didn’t stop Tony Vlachos from making Cliff his first target. Scot can’t pretend not to be good at the challenges. What he has done is try to take a back seat to Jason and allow Jason to make the strategic decisions. Scot tried not to get involved with voting out Jenny. He’s tried not to be too talkative at Tribal Council. As hard as he tries, though, someone with the physicality of Scot cannot fade into the background.
Then we have the players who have made a conscious effort to emphasise their strengths, and to try and make their tribes see them as valuable. Rather than follow the Jean-Robert model of trying not to be seen as a threat, there are players this season who are attempting to control people’s perceptions in a different way- to make people think that they are indispensable.
The first of these is Peter, who, after the elimination of his close ally Liz, knew that he was on the bottom of the Brains tribe. Peter’s strategy to remain in the game was simple- he wanted the Brains tribe to feel like they actually needed him. Whether it was taking a lead role in challenges, like last week when he completed the puzzle himself and single-handedly ensured the Brains tribe would have immunity, or whether it is running a doctor’s clinic tending to the various injuries of the Brains tribe, Peter wants to be seen as necessary. I don’t think Peter could have played the situation in any other way- his pride simply won’t let him be underestimated. It would be a better strategy to try and lay now and make new friends in a tribe swap situation, but Peter is too narcissistic for that. He wants to be seen as the hero. He’s actually quite similar to Jean-Robert in that he might think that he is being clever and controlling the way people see him, but in actuality, all he is doing is making enemies for himself. After his cocky confessional about how easy it was going to be for him to make the merge, I would not be at all shocked to see him eliminated next week.
The other prime candidate for elimination next week is Julia. If Gondol loses the challenge again, then there is no reason that it shouldn’t come down to the two former Beauties again. Strategically speaking, it makes sense for Peter, Joe, and Aubry to stick together, and either Tai or Julia should go home. I think that Julia has shown some tenacity so far, and I’m hoping she can convince the Brains to do the unthinkable and vote Peter out.
Although Julia isn’t trying to make herself seem indispensable to anybody, she has been trying to control the way people perceive her. I was impressed with the confessional that she gave while alone on the Brawn beach, in which she admitted that she had lied to everyone about her age. I’d imagine that she has simply let her alliance believe that they are all the same age, and tried to match everyone else’s life experience as best she can. She acknowledged that her age was a problem for her in the game, not only because every other player is coming in with more maturity and life experience than she has, but also because of other people’s perceptions. If she wants the respect of a jury, she cannot tell them that she is only a teenager. While the jury is theoretically there to reward the best player, it would be a hard call for them to award a teenager a million dollars. It is also important for Julia to continue the lie because the other players are far less likely to listen to the directions of a teenager. If she wants to have an impact on the game, it is in her best interest to ensure that the other players continue to think that she is in her twenties.
The last person possibly on the chopping block is Gondol’s other Beauty, Tai. Tai is in a better position than Julia because he has not only the idol but seemingly Scot’s loyalty as well. Even if the Brains turn against Tai this week, it seems that Scot would give him the information that he needed to play the idol. With the help of Scot and his idol, Tai should make the merge. The question will be where he goes when he gets there. Caleb was Tai’s strongest alliance. Does he join up with the rest of the Beauty Tribe at the merge? Or can Scot keep Tai on his side?
Tai’s strategy so far has been fascinating to watch, mostly because it seems to come from a place of honesty, which is unusual in the game of Survivor. Tai is almost the anti-Jean-Robert. He isn’t physically strong, but he is a hard worker, and because he is so likable, he has people on his side. Tai hasn’t been trying to play under the radar or downplay his ability to play the game. In fact, Tai has been doing the opposite. He has been employing the same strategy as Peter, trying to make himself indispensable to the tribe. Whether he is chopping coconuts or climbing mango trees, he is always contributing. Whereas the Brains tribe are rolling their eyes a little at Peter’s efforts, Tai has been far more successful. Scot admitted that he had a man crush on Tai, mainly due to his work ethic. When telling the Brains why they should keep him around, Tai didn’t bother trying to get them to underestimate him. He told them that he worked hard. He told them that he was a provider. He gave them a list of his strengths, and they still decided that Anna was the bigger threat.
In Survivor, you never want to be perceived as the biggest threat in the game. But at the same time, you don’t actually want to be perceived as weak either. Ideally, at the end of the game, the jury is going to have a reason to give you a million dollars. Jean-Robert was never going to get the jury to vote for him. In his quest to be underestimated, he alienated many members of the jury. He completely neglected the social side of the game, thinking that if he just played strategically, and controlled the way people perceived him, then he could win. It isn’t a winning strategy, as I think Peter, who has been playing in a similar way, will soon find out. Those who are starting to show their strengths, and to gain the respect of the jury are the ones who will have the best chance in front of a jury. Those who are currently underestimated still have some time to rectify their position. But that time is running out. The merge is coming. The jury will start soon. And you want to be sending people to Ponderosa who respect your game.