Survivor: Game Changers

The Sandra Game

Sarah Channon, who formerly posted as Sarah Freeman writes special feature blogs for RHAP. This feature looks back at the gameplay of Sandra Diaz-Twine, a contestant on the upcoming season, Survivor: Game Changers.

The Sandra Game

From the moment of Survivor’s first marooning, almost seventeen years ago, contestants and fans alike have been trying to figure out the best way to play it. On RHAP alone, there are countless podcasts and blogs discussing unofficial rules, the best tactics, recommended preparation and what attributes make for the person most likely to succeed in the game.

Yet the best track record belongs to a diminutive Hispanic woman with a habit of swearing at her tribemates and playing from her emotions. Sandra Diaz-Twine has played twice and won twice. For all the great games and players that feature in your personal power rankings, nobody else has done that.

This record does not prove that Sandra is the best player of all time, of course. 100% success out of two tries is statistically insignificant, and only a handful of winners have had the opportunity to try for a second victory. Moreover, most of us agree that the complex dynamics and twists of Survivor make it a game heavily dependent on luck, so every win can be considered a partial fluke.

On the other hand, winning twice can hardly be written off as a total fluke.

sunIt’s not a “Me” game; it’s a “They” game.

Survivor is an open game and much of its appeal lies in its diversity of contestants and approaches. That’s produced an astonishing variety of gameplay within the structure of immunity challenges and tribal councils—but that variety is a distraction.

Strip all the twists and game elements away, and there are only two points you need to focus on in Survivor:

  1. Will They vote me off?
  2. Will They vote for me to win?

As long as you are getting the right answers to those two questions, everything else is just technique.

While Sandra is so far the only person to succeed twice, others have come close. Keith Nale was one immunity win away from the title in San Juan Del Sur and could have made it to final three in Cambodia had the freak circumstances of the final six fallen out differently. Keith is utterly clueless about the machinations of Survivor, but he worked hard, could hold his own in the challenges and was generally liked.

In other words, he might not be ready for the Boston Rob Rulebook, but the Hali Ford Rules have done well for him. People are happy to vote for him to win, and there’s no reason to vote him off for the first thirty days or so of the game. It’s those last few days that pose the problem, and Keith has no clue how to escape Jeff’s snuffer short of winning immunity. That said, if Keith played five times, I wouldn’t be surprised if he won at least once, which is more than I can say for some of the others I am about to mention…

Take Ozzy, who played an incredible physical game his first time around, carrying himself and his alliance to the finals—where he lost to his alliance’s leader. He tried to take on the ringleader role for himself in his two returns, but got voted out shortly after the merge for his pains.

Thanks to Redemption Island, after his (second) South Pacific vote off, he could forget about question one altogether and focus on question two. He reverted to a strategy of winning challenges, this time buttering up the jury for all he was worth. He was one challenge away from a sure win when Sophie finally took him down. But when you bring question one back into the equation? Ozzy holds the dubious record of being voted out more times than any other contestant in Survivor’s history. (Cirie and Andrea might match him in Game Changers, but not if he breaks his own record first.)

It’s perhaps Cirie who has come the closest to matching Sandra’s track record. Twice, she’s had people willing to take her to the end and missed out on Final Tribal Council more by bad luck than anything else: in Panama, the two biggest targets in the game were both immune at final four, and she lost the tie-breaker; in Micronesia, she reached the final three with two of the least liked people in the game, only for a late medevac to bring on a final two.

Cirie knows what she’s doing when it comes to question one. Question two has never been answered definitively.

There are four other players who have made the end twice. Russell and Amanda memorably lost in back to back seasons. Amanda plays a reserved and wary social game. Her core allies aren’t voting her out, and they might vote for her to win… but there are never enough of them for that to work. Russell… well, Russell rephrased the questions: “Would I vote me out? Would I vote for me to win?” Survivor doesn’t work that way.

Finally, we have Boston Rob and Parvati, who both have one winning and one losing finalist game to their credit. Parvati’s style is to gather and manage numbers while teaming up with a tactician; Boston Rob prefers to be the sole puppetmaster. What they have in common is the Us vs. Them approach, forming a majority alliance and making it the In Crowd with the rest of the tribe as outcasts. This made their allies feel special, increasing their loyalty and ripening them for Rob and Parvati’s manipulation. However, by excluding the minority, they earned its enmity while those allies who discovered they weren’t in the core alliance after all, took their blindsides personally.

That sort of mind-game makes for beautiful viewing, but it means there will always be a decent proportion of people on the jury wanting to vote against you. To take such a risk, you need enough goats to force the jury’s hand, but you can’t ensure that the merge dynamics will account for that. A gifted player can pull it off, but no matter how gifted you are, I doubt you can get a high success rate with that strategy.

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The Queen of Survivor

So how did Sandra master the questions so absolutely? Let’s start by demystifying the player herself. We will give Sandra credit where credit’s due, but it’s a mistake to consider her exceptionally gifted at any one skill. As perceptive as Sandra is, she can be fooled. In her first season, she was blindsided by both Rupert and Christa’s boots. In Heroes vs. Villains, she believed that Jerri trusted her above anybody else, until Jerri flipped to Russell and Parvati without warning.

There’s a divide as to how strategic Sandra is, with many people pointing to how she manipulated Russell into voting off Coach, which saved her by the three days she needed to make the merge. Others note that she consistently failed to vote Russell off after the merge, and got to the end with the biggest goat of all time despite herself.

Sandra certainly does think about the game in more strategic terms than a Keith Nale. Even in Pearl Islands, Christa said that Sandra was always hatching crazy schemes. An interview with Reality Blurred ahead of Heroes vs Villains shows her research and thinking going into the game that would result in her historic second win. She’s got plans going into Game Changers as well. Whether or not you agree with her perspective, when it comes to the game, Sandra has as many hot takes as any superfan.

Is she great at implementing said ‘hot takes’? No (with a few notable exceptions). For the most part, negotiating is not Sandra’s strong suit. She’s good at reading people, and she’s an excellent liar, but her track record with swaying players from against her to with her is spotty at best. This carries over to her Final Tribal Councils: she might know what the jury wants to hear, but she’s not one of the great orators. When Jerri challenged Sandra’s claim of loyalty, pointing out that she didn’t have Jerri’s back in the previous vote, Sandra had no answer for her.

A smoother talker could probably have placated Jerri, but ceding the point was better than flailing the way so many do before the jury. Sandra’s silence lost Jerri’s vote, but no more than that. With the jury, as with the players in the game, Sandra relies on pre-existing relationships rather than rhetoric.

Trish and Coach are the most obvious examples of Sandra successfully taking the initiative to change the vote, and she’s also taken an active role in protecting herself. However, she has definite strategic failings: one is that she seems to have a short attention span. She was forever talking about getting a women’s alliance together in Pearl Islands, but that rarely lasted to Tribal Council, possibly because the only woman she liked was Christa.

She’s also not one to plan several moves ahead, believing a solidly defined strategy doesn’t work. (There’s a lot of precedent for this argument.) On the other hand, she’s not totally heedless of what’s coming next. She and Christa were discussing when to vote Rupert off before Fairplay and Burton took care of that for them. In Heroes vs Villains, she felt she needed to get rid of Russell because the other Villain women were so tight with him that she had no chance of moving up in that group unless he was gone—this proved not to be totally accurate, but she had a motive beyond pure revenge.

That said, I think it’s safe to say that Sandra focuses more on making it through the game than on whom she’ll be facing in the finals. She wasn’t exactly playing to win Pearl Islands as—by her own admission—she never thought she’d make it to the end. The semantics are up for debate here as it can’t be said she ever gave up either. At the final three, she pitched her case to Lil, buttered her up at Tribal Council… but when Jonny Fairplay was voted off, she visibly went from being proud of third place to realizing she’s won.

As far as luck goes, it certainly played a part insofar as she was never on a tribe that lost the early challenges when weaker players are typically targeted. While Sandra doesn’t admit to nerves, she’s plainly paranoid about her physical weakness: in both of her seasons, she’s got into a pre-merge argument defending her role in challenges.

However, we can’t assume she would have gone home had her tribe lost an early challenge. To take another physically weak woman as our comparison, Cirie lost two out of the first three immunity challenges on each of her seasons but avoided the vote. The one time Cirie did go home pre-merge, she was taken out by an idol not a majority.

Cirie didn’t get through that early stage by pulling some crazy strategic move or manipulation; she did it by working hard and befriending the majority—which is exactly what Sandra did in her seasons. Sandra can play subservient to the egos yet exchange snark with anybody; her social skillset is good.

Had either of her tribes gone on an early losing streak, that might not have saved her, but she’s been to her share of pre-merge Tribal Councils (five of them, in Heroes vs. Villains) without receiving a single vote. Whether or not she was fully tested on question one, “Will They vote me off?”, she was taking the right steps to address it.

Luck also factored into the same circumstance happening twice: both seasons, she was in an alliance which fell apart, leaving her the last-targeted, last-standing member who reaped the benefits of a bitter jury. Alliance management, it must be said, clearly isn’t Sandra’s strong suit. Yet to say this is the only scenario under which Sandra could win is results-based thinking. More on that when we get to her game.

sunShe can get quiet too (WTF).

First we need to cover her emotional side… specifically, her temper. Sandra is most definitely a sore loser and has exacted as petty revenge as any player. Whether she intended to throw out the fish or merely spilled them, she was sabotaging her tribemates’ food supply. Burning Russell’s hat proved to be poetic justice for Jaison’s socks, but Sandra had no idea of Russell’s actions in Samoa when she set out to destroy his personal property.

From a maturity point of view, ridiculous behavior. From an entertainment point of view, fantastic television. From a game point of view… notice how Sandra never got caught? Kaoh Rong’s Scot put out the fire to make a statement in full view of his shocked tribemates. Sandra vented her frustrations in private, denied all culpability in public—and was believed. She knows it’s not ideal gameplay, so she doesn’t make it part of her game. If you’re going to lose emotional control from time to time, you have to be able to recover.

Then there are the arguments, which make up Sandra’s most infamous quotes and gifs. They tend to be with the players who are confrontational anyway, most notably Fairplay and Russell Hantz who have got into shouting matches with multiple contestants. What should not be overlooked is that Sandra gets on well with players as disparate as Rupert and Tyson (and even Fairplay for most of Pearl Islands).

We also shouldn’t overlook all the times she keeps her cool. When Trish brought Fairplay and Sandra into her plan to target Rupert, Sandra never batted an eye, and the other two were convinced she was on board up until Trish’s name was read out at Tribal Council. (Whether angry or relaxed, Sandra is an excellent liar.) By Heroes vs. Villains, a seven-years-older Sandra kept a much better lid on her temper, often frustrating Russell by playing meek when he tried to provoke her. That said, she has trouble letting things slide—and sometimes that means things escalate.

It’s not a good trait, but for her demographic, it might have an unexpected perk. If a tall, physically strong player loses their temper, it may be seen as bullying and intimidation. They’re better off saving their muscle-bulging and vein-popping for challenges to win respect, while being laid back at camp to win friends. But Sandra is not an imposing figure, and as both a woman of color and a young mother (she was only 29 in Pearl Islands), she’s not somebody who her tribemates will readily relate to.

I’m going to use Cirie as a comparison again, because she’s another physically weak woman of color. In episode three of Micronesia when a desperate Jonathan Penner patronized her once too often, Cirie lost her temper. It was a bad social move, since she burned a bridge that she probably couldn’t have rebuilt had she needed to, but it had one very interesting side-effect. In the first half of the episode, Jonathan asserted that Parvati was lying to and manipulating Cirie. At the end of the episode, Jonathan stated that Cirie was playing Parvati like a fiddle. He might not have liked her any better, but Jonathan started respecting Cirie as a player after she snapped at him.

Sandra seems to benefit similarly from her own outbursts. Temper and tears are both losses of control, but temper tends to be excused as a sign of strength rather than weakness. Lil ruthlessly cut down her allies, but wept and whined as she did so; Sandra’s cursing had no direct effect on the game, yet it implied a lack of fear. Parvati had some sway over Russell but only through pandering to him; Sandra couldn’t thwart their moves, but she was the only person in the game who had the nerve to say to Russell’s face what everybody (every juror) was thinking.

Yes, she only gets away with it because she’s not an obvious target during the individual portion of the game. But it’s not fair to criticize her for not following another player’s optimal strategy, especially when she’s scoring more points going the less recommended route. If you’re in the clear on question one, you need to focus on question two: “Will They vote for me to win?”

So far, the answer has been “Yes.”

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The Game – It’s the thought that counts.

So that’s Sandra: a very human, flawed individual, with the usual strengths and weaknesses we expect from any contestant. Among the five hundred or so people to play Survivor, there’s nothing to make Sandra stand out except that she has that two for two record. Moreso than Sandra herself, we need to look at her game to find the key to her success.

Let’s get one thing straight: her game is not “As long as it’s not me.” That’s symbolic of her ruthless approach, perhaps it’s her own reminder to herself to keep it simple and not go overboard with her crazy ideas… but it’s a gross simplification of her overall game. As a frustrated Parvati exclaimed during Heroes vs. Villains, at some point it will be you. You need some sway in the game. The question Sandra’s success forces us to ask is: “Does that control have to be the vote?”

Moving away from Sandra’s seasons, Survivor is littered with examples where the jury voted for (or would have voted for) a player who had less influence on the vote than another finalist. Just from the post-Vlachos era: in San Juan Del Sur, Missy controlled more of the game than Natalie, and Keith would have beaten either at the end. Worlds Apart, Mike had very little voting power at any point post-merge. In Cambodia, it was Kelley Wentworth who was the underdog threat to win, despite never getting control of the game. For Kaoh Rong, Aubry and Cydney guided their chosen allies through a rocky post-merge, but Michele was the hands down jury favorite.

Most notably, we have Millennials vs. Gen X, the season of superfans that were about rewarding strategy. At its merge, Hannah assessed the two questions integral to Survivor and realized “They” were unlikely to vote her off now, but “They” were also unlikely to vote for her to win. If she stayed loyal to any one ally—Adam, Zeke, David—she would merely be enabling his win. As the younger, goofy, nervy girl, she was up against the stereotype of riding coattails.

So Hannah played a game of thwarting her allies. She betrayed Zeke to save David, and when David was set up as the biggest threat in the game, she stymied Adam’s attempts to vote him out: if Adam got the credit for eliminating David, she would lose anyway. Hannah was in the majority on every post-merge vote aside from the tie, and she frequently changed the target for the sake of having her say.

The problem for Hannah was that her strategy was so counter-intuitive to the jury’s strategic view of the game, that Adam still got the credit for David’s boot. (All three of the finalists had some responsibility for that move—but it’s what the jury assumes that counts). Hannah had more control over the post-merge vote than any other player that season, but she never played herself into a winning position.

Meanwhile, Adam faced the jury with several strategic failures and social misreads on his résumé. Rather than deny it, he highlighted his failures at the Final Tribal Council, maintaining that he had the right idea and the other players should have listened to him. This was a line of argument that the jury could fully agree with.

Of course, the jurors were already planning to vote for Adam, so all he really did was provide them with a rationale for their vote. The truth of Adam’s success, as he said himself, lay in his social relationships. Seeing his arguments and tears during the game, nobody quite realized how well-liked and respected he was by the other players—and a good portion of why they liked him was because he was so unstintingly honest. They knew where he stood. That meant they were willing to consider working with him, and he reciprocated. Unlike Hannah, he rarely worried about having his say in the vote, but he was always in the middle of the numbers.

In other words, Adam won by playing the Sandra game. I don’t mean Sandra would have won Millennials vs Gen X. With that particular cast, a good part of why they liked Adam was because he could articulate strategy. The jury wanted to vote for a strategic fan of the game (like themselves)—Sandra might have struggled with that. But like Adam, Sandra won the affection and respect of her juries for her honesty and willingness to work with them.

The latter is an underrated aspect of Survivor. It’s not just about cutting anybody, it’s about working with anybody too. When you’re going along with somebody else’s plan, you’re conveying a certain level of respect for it. As I said before, Boston Rob and Parvati excluded players, and the result was jurors voting against them rather than for their opponent. Sandra might swear at the players and write them off in confessional, but there is nobody she despises too much to vote with.

sunShe can be with you and against you.

Sandra allied with Fairplay repeatedly over the course of Pearl Islands, but it’s her relationship with Russell which is most underrated. Sandra was actually very docile around Russell for much of the game. He would rant at her over rumors she was flipping; she’d meekly deny it and remind him she was no threat to him, which he’d avidly agree with. While Russell never claimed to respect her, he was oddly loyal to her in his own way. On three separate occasions (the Courtney vote, the Rupert vote, and the Jerri vote), an ally recommended that he vote her off, and he refused to do it.

Cooperation encourages people to keep you around; it also encourages jurors to vote for you, because jurors like voting for players who were on their side. As true as it is that Sandra won her seasons as the lesser of finalist evils, few jurors ever wanted to vote against her. Lil, Russell, and Parvati burned their bridges with at least half the jury. Out of Sandra’s sixteen jurors, Ryan Opray is the only one she never pitched her vote to; only Fairplay, Coach, and maybe Tijuana actively wanted to vote against Sandra—even then, Fairplay picked her over Lil! Having 80% of the jury open to voting for you under the right circumstances is an excellent ratio.

While working with others was Sandra’s plan from her first marooning, her jury management is something she’s learned and improved upon. She clearly hadn’t given much thought to what she would say at her first Final Tribal Council. She opened with her strategy of being a team player, focusing on why the jurors hadn’t voted her off rather than why she should win. Once the jurors started talking, however, she took in their attitudes, and when it came time for closing statements, she correctly pinpointed her candor and honesty as the reason she was going to get the jury’s votes.

In Heroes vs. Villains, Russell was the lightning rod for all the players’ feelings, and Sandra was not immune to that. She had her rationale for voting off Russell, and on paper, flipping to the Heroes’ alliance with all its in-fighting and resentment wasn’t a bad idea. There were more plausible paths for her to reach the end with them than with the Villains’ tight-knit foursome. Yet when it came down to it, she just didn’t like Russell… but, as she well knew, neither did the jury.

Taking the goat to the end isn’t always the best strategy, and Parvati was about to learn that the hard way.

There were two overarching themes for the jury that season, one of which didn’t come across in the edit but was a repeated theme in the secret scenes: a battle of feminism. The women of Yin Yang felt the men were sexist—the Hero men were domineering, while Russell craved female attention.

For the most part, the women humored the men in game, but they frequently stated to the cameras that they were strong, independent women who would never let themselves be pushed around the way the other women were. While often hypocritical, it got very judgmental, to the point where Candice used her jury question to compare Parvati’s relationship with Russell to one of domestic abuse and effectively stated that Parvati was going to lose the game because she had never voted Russell off.

As for the men of the jury, they had bought into the Heroes vs. Villains theme in a big way. To them it was important that Good triumph over Evil; Russell Hantz was clearly the face of Evil in this season, the question was who was the force of Good to oppose him?

The risk of letting a Hero slip through to the end was a huge one, but Parvati could have turned on Russell at final six or final five and tried for a different path to victory. However, her biggest mistake in the game probably came during the final six Tribal Council. Jeff was asking about Sandra’s confrontation with Russell, and Parvati jumped in with a re-enactment of Sandra’s: “I’m against you, Russell.”

The jury loved it. In one moment of thoughtless fun, Parvati set Sandra up unequivocally as the one person who wasn’t afraid of Russell. Even if Parvati had voted Russell out after that, Sandra would likely have been credited for it. The female jurors wanted to vote for a strong, independent woman (like themselves). The male jurors wanted to vote for a hero (like themselves). Sandra fit both bills.

Sandra essentially won the game at that final six Tribal Council. She had Rupert, Courtney, and Candice’s votes locked in, and if Parvati had ended up on the jury, she’d have got hers and Danielle’s as well. Even had she gone to the end with Rupert and Colby, it seems unlikely either of them could have pulled enough female votes to win. The only combination she might lose against would be Parvati and Jerri—like Sandra, Jerri didn’t have many jurors voting against her—and even then, I think Sandra would have stood an excellent chance.

Of course, Sandra didn’t rely on Parvati for her Tribal Council PR. She provoked Russell a number of times, (most notably at the Amanda and Jerri votes) setting herself up as an absurd little underdog. Russell bought into the self-deprecation, and failed to comprehend the impact of Sandra deadpanning that she knew she couldn’t win because Russell kept telling her so. If there was one cause to rally that jury, it was proving Russell wrong.

While I’ve said Sandra isn’t the greatest talker Survivor has ever seen, her Final Tribal Council performances are still worth studying. She has the perfect answer for the riding coattails accusation: “Whose coattails did I ride? My alliance was voted off!” She told Ryan Opray that the first time around and made it the point of her opening statement the second.

More importantly, she preys on the jury’s emotions rather than their logic. When she admits (both times) she didn’t control a vote, she’s spinning it as a positive: “I wasn’t the one who backstabbed you and put you on that bench.” J.T. did the same thing, just with more finesse. Particularly with Heroes vs. Villains this had a fascinating psychological effect as Sandra practically berated the Heroes, pointing out how every one of them could have saved themselves by letting her join them. She was making one final bid to be part of their alliance, and this time they accepted her. What do jurors do when there is one member of their alliance left standing at the end? They vote for them.

Up until Adam, Sandra was the only person to win Survivor by saying “I told you so.” Adam, however, said it to his opponents. Sandra tipped the scale of ironic beauty by saying it to her jurors. And there can be few things more appropriately Sandra than that.

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Power Ranking – But what do we know about that?

So where does Sandra place in the Pantheon of Great Survivor Players—if at all? Well, Gentle Reader, you know your own personal criteria better than I do. Thanks to her improvisational approach, there’s always a question of intention with Sandra: how much did she do deliberately and how much did she luck into? If you like your players to always be thinking two or three moves ahead, or to have a desired endgame in mind, Sandra’s going to lose points there. If you like a social gamer who knows how people work, Sandra rates highly, and she can absolutely work a jury. However, she still falls down on alliance management, and we shouldn’t expect her to sweet-talk anybody out of an immunity necklace. (Nor win one herself!)

Still, if there’s one thing Sandra does better than most players (and winners in particular), it’s to learn from her game. She’s survived more blindsides than most winners, so she’s had the experience of things not going her way. She’s an avid fan too, which helped her evolve with the changing game. Most importantly, the lessons Sandra took away from her first (and second) time were not about being more aggressive, putting it all out there and proving herself, but about simply getting in good with the other players.

That’s what sets her apart from the vast majority of returnees, as evidenced by the pre-game interviews coming out with the Game Changers cast. So many returnees overplay themselves right out of the game. For all Sandra’s impulsiveness, she’s very good at keeping her game simple and within her own limits.

Sandra did not so much change the game as reveal it. Rather than arguing about where Sandra ranks, our time would be better spent ranking her tactics (deliberate or accidental). Masterminding and manipulation are great, but at the end of the day, Survivor is all about the other players and their perceptions. If your move isn’t convincing your tribemates to keep you in the game and/or your jurors to vote for you to win, then it’s irrelevant. The only thing you need to control is your own image.

Nevertheless, the game has evolved again, and the theme this time will encourage the jury to reward Big Moves rather than morality. In theory, this should handicap Sandra, but speaking from this side of the season, that’s not something she needs worry about. If Sandra makes it to day 39 a third time, that will be achievement enough for most jurors to reward her. However, this time around, she won’t be able to rely on having the smallest target of her alliance.

Can the Sandra game compensate for that and let her pull out a hat trick? I don’t know, but I’d say her odds are better than one in twenty.

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