Each week in Lessons in Survivor History, I will revisit another season to compare gameplay and draw from the lessons that have been learned.
Lessons in Survivor History: Playing a Passive Game
Well, it sure was satisfying to see Taylor voted out, wasn’t it? If you were to write a handbook on all the things not to on Survivor, you could cite Taylor as an example over and over again. He got himself into a showmance. He made an alliance of four on a ten-person tribe. He contributed nothing to the strategy of the season. He stole the food. Taylor was just a terrible Survivor player, and I was glad that they voted him out instead of keeping him around as a handy goat. The temptation must have been there- I think that every single person left in the game could have beaten him easily at the Final Tribal Council. But in the end, there are other goats available. Goats who don’t eat half your food supply.
I enjoyed Taylor’s last stand, however fruitless it ended up being. Targeting Adam and getting people paranoid about his advantage was a really entertaining move. I just think that he left it too late. The majority alliance had a complicated split-votes plan, and there was never a chance that they were going to switch it up at Tribal. Had Taylor approached them earlier, then he might actually have been able to make Adam the target. But Taylor is Taylor. He made the move that seemed to make sense to him, but in the end, Taylor was the only person who voted for Adam. He wasn’t able to sway one single vote. Not even Taylor’s allies voted with him, and so Taylor was sent to join Michelle at Ponderosa.
After being on the wrong side of the vote last week, Jay, Will and Taylor knew that their position in the game was unsure. They had to scramble this week to try and survive. What is interesting is that they seemed to approach their situation in different ways. Taylor’s strategy was to blow up Adam’s spot. Jay’s strategy was to trade on the relationships that he had built throughout the game. We saw him attempting to get his former allies Hannah and Sunday back on his side. And then there’s Will, who must have done something, but we just didn’t see it. He did end up voting for Jay. Was that just instinct, or did he have conversations that we just didn’t see? Like most of Will’s game, it is a complete mystery.
Obviously, for this week’s vote, Taylor’s aggressive strategy was the wrong one. It could be said that Will’s strategy, which seems to be quite a passive one, has been the most successful. But is that always the case? What does that mean for the other players in the game? Can Will continue with his passive game play and still win? To look for the answers to these questions, for this week’s lesson in Survivor history, we are going back to season 17, Survivor: Gabon, and fourth place finisher, Matty Whitmore.
Survivor: Gabon began with a schoolyard pick to decide the two tribes. Matty ended up on the Fang tribe, and when compared with the opposing Kota tribe, it seemed that Fang was at a clear disadvantage. They had many of the weaker players in the game and lost the first two immunity challenges. With such a clear physical deficit between the two tribes, and Matty being a physically fit player, he was never in trouble and voted with the majority. During this time, Matty began to build relationships. He began to work with Dan Kay, Randy Bailey and Susie Smith. He was in a great position within the tribe. So much so, that when the two tribes were asked to rank their members according to importance, the Fang tribe ranked Matty as their most important member.
The game changed and the two tribes were switched. Matty remained on Fang, but was separated from all of his allies. Once again, despite the fact that the tribes had been swapped, Fang was the weaker tribe, repeatedly losing immunity. And again, despite the fact that Matty was on the tribe that was consistently losing, he was in a strong position. He’d lost all of his original allies, but he was easily able to form new relationships. He joined with fellow original Fang members Ken Hoang and Crystal Cox, and became part of their alliance. He also made an alliance with original Kota member Ace Gordon, and his close ally Sugar Kiper. Although Ace was blindsided by Ken and Crystal, Matty’s alliances carried him through to the third tribe swap. On the third tribe swap, he was once again placed on the Fang tribe, this time without his close allies. Had Fang lost immunity, Matty would certainly have been targeted. Fortunately for Matty, Fang managed to win immunity, keeping him safe. Fang and Kota then merged into one tribe, and Matty became a member of the merged tribe, Nobag.
On Nobag, Matty’s position was initially secure. His close ally and friend Ken seized control of the game, and began to vote out those who were not in his alliance. Eventually though, Ken began to see Matty as a threat, and began to target him. Matty knew that he was being targeted.When Corrine Kaplan was voted out, Matty received three of the seven votes. But it was the way that he responded that allowed him to outlast those who were targeting him, and to eventually make it all the way to fourth place.
The passive players
Matty’s strategy was a good mixture of passive and aggressive play. He never overtly tried to become a strategist, realising that strategy was never going to be his strength. Instead, he focused on what he was good at- creating and maintaining relationships. Although his relationships with Ken and Crystal were beyond repair, Matty ensured that he was still well liked by everyone else left in the game. He made sure that he spent time with the outsiders. Matty’s biggest strength in the game was that he was a really nice person. People liked being around him. And that strength would serve him well in the game. His strong bond with the tribe outsiders allowed him to get the numbers back on his side, and he was able to turn the game against Ken and Crystal.
Both Will and Jay did a great job this week at focusing on relationships and not on strategy. Even when Sunday asked Jay for a strategic opinion, he responded by telling her that he would do whatever she wanted. Jay summed up his strategy in confessional when he said: “I got to stay positive, got to give good energy, and you know, the universe should be alright with giving it back.” He’s trying to stay low to cultivate the relationships that he already had from Ikabula (Hannah and Sunday) and hope for the best. He knows he is not the kingpin, and he can see that his best path to the end is to be as non-threatening as possible. Like Matty, he is a likable person. Sunday was genuinely upset at the thought of writing his name down. People at Ikabula really did like Jay, and he might be able to use that to his advantage, especially when there are players like Adam or Jessica that have enemies out there.
I was surprised by how passively Sunday played this week. I actually think her instinct is correct- after she wrote Jessica’s name down, she stopped being part of Jessica’s long-term plans. Jessica’s closest allies, David and Ken, grow more powerful each week. Jay and Will (and by extension, Taylor), have more of a bond with Bret and Sunday than with anyone else in the game. And more importantly, I think that Sunday is running out of options if she wants to win. Like it or not, it is difficult for a woman like Sunday to win the game. She has ‘goat’ written all over her, and it is going to be hard for her to change people’s perceptions. I think that the person who comes in and plays such a maternal game is always going to be in danger of becoming a zero vote finalist. Sunday needs to have people in the game who are bigger goats than she is. People like Taylor, who had absolutely zero chance to win the game. People like 18-year-old Will, who hasn’t done anything except follow Jay around. If Sunday could have gotten Hannah and Bret to vote with her, then she could have gotten rid of Jessica and seized power in the game.
Sunday knew that she had been playing a passive game so far. She said: “I definitely feel like I need to take control of the game” and talked about using Jay to do so, but she was so quick to give up on the idea- and I was quite disappointed. She said: “If it were up to me, I would 100% like to see Jessica go home”, but we didn’t actually see her advocate for Jessica’s elimination at all. She just meekly went along with the group. I think that playing passively is a good idea for Jay and Will, who are on the bottom, have friends on the jury, and just need to survive from Tribal Council to Tribal Council. But for someone in Sunday’s position, if she continues playing so passively, she will regret it.
The aggressive players
Matty didn’t just sit around making friends when he was in danger. He also made aggressive moves, all targeting Ken and Crystal, the two people in the game who were targeting him. He was able to do this due to his skill at building trust with the other players. He approached Sugar, whom he had worked with previously in the game. Although she initially refused to work with him, he was able to convince her that he was on her side. Sugar was an emotional player and Matty was able to appeal to those emotions, and convince her that Ken and Crystal were bad people, and if she wanted one of the good guys to win, then she had to vote with him. It worked, and Sugar and Matty along with fellow outsiders Susie and eventual winner Bob Crowley formed a new alliance, voting Crystal and Ken out at successive Tribal Councils.
This week, Taylor was the one making all the aggressive moves, and it backfired, sending him home. But outing Adam’s advantage, and accusing Adam of stealing food, might still pay off for Jay or Will. We have seen that Hannah and Zeke are seemingly quite willing to get rid of Adam when the timing is right. There may still be time for Jay or Will to make an aggressive move against Adam and have it pay off.
I really enjoyed Jay’s conversation with Hannah. At the moment, Hannah fancies herself as the most aggressive player in the game. She had a vote go the way she expected it to, and she admitted to finding it “addicting”. She enjoyed having Michelle go home, and she’s hungry for more. As she put it, “I’m actually playing with the intention of trying to win, and build a résumé, and it’s so fun.” I really like Hannah and enjoy her as a character, but she’s got a really dangerous mindset at the moment. She thinks that her game so far, which has been extremely passive, has been turning her into a goat, and the only way that she is going to win is to make increasingly big moves.
To Jay’s credit, I think he was able to stoke Hannah’s ego and subtly push her into making another big move- and this time in his favour. He praised her for flipping on him, telling her that her move was cool. And then he asked to be a part of her next big move. One of the main reasons that Hannah flipped on him in the first place was that she felt like she was facilitating his plans. It was really smart of Jay to make Hannah feel as though he would now be her pawn.
I think that Hannah should be looking to play more aggressively, but she has to be careful how she makes her moves. Aggressive moves that have strategic benefit are good moves. Aggressive moves made only for the sake of ‘building a résumé’ are usually not great.
Relationships are key
Matty was only able to move against Ken and Crystal because he had spent the time building a relationship with Sugar. He was able to use their previous bond to get her on his side. He was able to convince Sugar that he had always been looking out for her best interests, all the way back to the Tribal portion of the game when Ken and Crystal had voted against Ace, who had been Sugar’s ally, and would have stayed loyal to Sugar until the end of the game. Matty was able to bring Sugar over to his side, and she was so completely on his side that she played her immunity idol for him. Without Matty’s ability to get Sugar on his side, he would have been sent home in sixth place.
At this past Tribal Council, Will voted for Jay in what I assume was an attempt to ingratiate himself with the alliance. Jay has been attempting to renew his old relationships from Ikabula. Taylor was not attempting to build relationships with anybody. After the merge, we didn’t even see him approach Ken and Jessica, although they were both open to working with him during their time at Takali. Taylor had also been one of the people sent to the ‘summit’ earlier on in the season, where David promised him that at the merge, they would work together. Yes, things have changed since the summit, but we didn’t see Taylor try to reconnect with David at all. At a time when Taylor should have been trying to get as many people on his side as possible, he instead sat with Jay and finished off the tribe’s food supply.
Winning the game as a passive player
I think that Matty did a fantastic job of turning the game his way. He recognised that he was in trouble, and that he couldn’t trust Crystal and Ken. He was then able to use his social skills to bring together the four outsiders and vote Crystal and Ken out. He had a final three deal with Bob and Sugar, and he stood a good chance to win the game.
But at final four, Susie won immunity. Sugar, who had lost her father shortly before playing the game and saw Bob as a father figure, could not bring herself to vote against Bob. So despite all of the work that Matty had put in with Sugar, she voted for him. Matty was forced into a fire making challenge against Bob, which he lost, sending him home in fourth place. Can you win as a passive player, or do you have to play more aggressively in order to win?
In short, the answer to that question is that it depends on the situation. It depends on the player, and the season. It depends on who is in the jury and what kind of game the jury wants to reward. In Survivor: Gabon, Matty absolutely could have won the game- because the people who were at the end were such unpalatable options to the jury. Matty’s inoffensive, passive way of playing the game and the relationships that he had made would have won him the game. If only Susie hadn’t won that final immunity, Matty would likely have been the winner of Survivor: Gabon.
But what worked for Matty is unlikely to work for other players. There are some players who have always had an uphill battle to win. I think that Sunday, as the maternal older woman who is a pastor at home, was always going to struggle to get the respect of a jury. Her passive way of playing has only intensified this problem. She isn’t going to get anyone’s respect if she quietly goes along with the wishes of the majority alliance until she reaches the Final Tribal Council. I can definitely see her making it to the end of the game, but unless she drastically changes her game, I think that the Final Tribal Council is going to be brutal for Sunday.
Although I did choose him as my pre-season winners pick, I honestly don’t think Will had a chance of winning the game from the moment that he put his hand up in the opening moments of the game and admitted to being 18. From that moment, it didn’t matter so much what his game looked like because the other players are going to struggle to give the million dollars to someone that they see as only a kid. For Will, I’m not sure whether he can do anything to win the game, but it is certain that his passive gameplay isn’t winning him any respect. Playing aggressively is a risk at this point- but I think Will is in a spot where he has nothing to lose. He and Jay are alone on the bottom of the tribe, and Jay has an immunity idol. This means that when the majority alliance split the votes, it is Will who will end up going home. Unless Will makes some aggressive moves, he is going home next week.
For those in the majority alliance, aggressive moves will have to be made soon. An alliance of nine simply cannot stick together. As Chris admitted at Tribal Council, there are cracks. That alliance isn’t going to last forever, and those who know that they are on the outs should be willing to make an aggressive move before it is too late. Jessica should know that the majority of Gen X wants her gone- they did, after all, vote for her. Adam is clearly in a shaky position. We don’t know how confident Zeke feels in his alliance with David and Chris. Does he feel safe, or, as a Millennial in a large alliance of Gen Xers, could he be looking to make a move?
Passivity works for some, and not for others. Some jurors will happily vote for someone who built relationships without making strategic moves, while other jurors will scoff at that person as a coattail rider. As a Survivor player, your job is to work out what the jury is going to want and play the game accordingly.
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