Survivor: Cambodia

How To School Survivor

In Survivor’s fourth season, Marquesas, a young Rob Mariano tapped into the show’s undiscovered zeitgeist when he quoted The Godfather. The actual quote wasn’t important, but the source was everything. By comparing (successful) Survivor players to the glamorized Mafia, Boston Rob crystallized for a lot of fans what they wanted to see in the show: the gangster, the puppetmaster, manipulating all other players to his or her own ends.

As this ideal gained traction with the viewers and media, it gained traction in the game itself. As Rob Cesternino and David Bloomberg recently discussed, scheming and plotting has never been more important than in New School Survivor, with juries increasingly rewarding the more aggressive players, and we came into this season expecting that the Old School players were going to have to catch up to compete on an even footing with New School.

Yet David rightly pointed out that strategy is not exclusive to New School players. Richard Hatch won the first season by playing strategically, while Mike Holloway won the most recent one on his physical merits. Strategy may have evolved over the seasons, but players were quicker to grasp the principles of strategy than the subtleties of the social game. Yes, Old School player Andrew Savage is trying to play the game by a real world moral compass, but Older School player Jeff is playing a more cutthroat game than anybody—and so far, it’s the New School players who are losing.

Jeff Probst told Dalton Ross that there was going to be a shift in how the game is played over the course of the season. Is it time to throw out “The Evolution of Strategy” (not literally; Rob and Josh put a lot of effort into that!) and search for a more timeless way to play Survivor?

The Godfather Myth

As much as Survivor embraced the idea of a puppetmaster, the results don’t bear out the vision: control of the game is generally a group effort, nobody wins without a considerable dose of luck, and playing aggressively is still more likely to get you voted off than to take you to the million. Boston Rob may have given Survivor that dream, but he failed miserably in his first attempt to live it. This isn’t to say that the strategic game isn’t important; it’s one of the many tools at the players’ disposal, and it’s certainly something that we can enjoy watching; however, seeking to win the game by controlling every vote is as unrealistic as winning every immunity challenge.

This season, Vytas established a pre-game alliance and had the great good fortune of being on the same tribe as all of his allies who had made the show. Luck went against him when they got taken to Tribal Council so quickly—it’s possible that with more time for discussion, Peih Gee and Varner would have kept Vytas and voted out Abi.

Step 1: Oars; Step 2: Allies. Step 1: Oars; Step 2: Allies.[/caption]

Shirin hit the beach and immediately started scrambling to secure the numbers, putting herself at the head of the majority alliance and targeting who she considered to be the biggest strategic threat: Vytas. She succeeded, only to find her alliance shifting the target to what they considered to be the biggest strategic threat: Shirin.

This episode, Peih-Gee tried to seize control of the vote when she saw her majority alliance falling apart. Per her interview, if Abi joined up with Tasha and Savage to vote off Varner, Peih-Gee would almost certainly be the next target when the tribe almost certainly went to Tribal Council again. If she got Abi out, she, Woo, and Varner would retain the majority. The terrible flaw in her plan was that Tasha and Savage were perfectly capable of coming to the same conclusion and realizing that Abi was more likely to stay loyal to them for at least one more vote.

On paper, Varner is the leading candidate for puppetmaster, but twice it’s possible that he has voted purely to avoid a tie-breaker situation—by no means a bad strategy, particularly at this early stage of the game, but it’s not controlling the vote. As he explained in the most recent Tribal Council (perhaps after spending the afternoon trying to pound it into Abi), Tasha and Savage had taken control. It remains to be seen if they can hold onto the reins longer than Shirin and Spencer.

If strategic and physical prowess aren’t how you win Survivor, then clearly it’s a social game, right? That’s a simple conclusion, but the social game is difficult to define and a lot of it overlaps with the strategic side, as players buddy up to other players for the sole purpose of manipulating their vote. Besides, like the strategic game, players get too ambitious and overrate their own abilities. And this is where Abi Maria comes in: the emotional, volatile player who can surely be manipulated by somebody smarter. Certainly, going by Philippines, Abi can be a loyal ally… if she has a crush on you.

The problem with Abi as an ally is that she’s a full-time job in herself. Shirin took her on board and found herself needing to reassure Abi constantly—perhaps she failed to have a conversation with Woo because she didn’t have time? Certainly, Worlds Apart’s finale had taken its toll on Shirin, and she lacked the emotional reserves to handle Abi. She gave herself a break, and that was when Abi turned on her.

This season, I must try to be a benevolent dictator.

I try to be a benevolent dictator.

Varner fared a little better, managing to find genuine delight in Abi, but I think Peih-Gee was right when she observed that Abi is too much to handle. Everybody wanted to manipulate her and that was what made her dangerous. Peih-Gee had a vested interest in getting rid of Abi, but at least she was aware of her social limitation and sought to fix it by removing Abi from the equation at the first opportunity. Unfortunately for her (though fortunately for Abi), she failed.

If we’re really looking for the person who’s had the most successful influence on the votes so far, then Abi-Maria is the puppetmaster of Cambodia. In fact, when you look at the game from Abi’s perspective, it’s been a roaring success: She has dodged her own target while steadily making new allies and removing her enemies, one by one.

Abi is making big moves and being her own brand of badass. She’s dutifully following the fan-approved winner template—yet she’s unlikely to be winning jury votes.

How You Play The Game

After he was finished quoting The Godfather, Boston Rob went on to lose Marquesas. The season was ultimately won by Vecepia’s more defensive game: she worried about her own position rather than everybody else’s. Survivor is a game that has evolved dramatically over the years, but two core objectives have remained the same: survive the vote and then convince the jury of failed players to give you the win. Vecepia’s a great example of somebody who did little but follow those two principles, but an even better case study is Sandra. (I am shamelessly infringing on Catherine’s Survivor History column here, but she said she wasn’t going to use winners this season, so Sandra’s mine!)

Sandra not only won the game twice, but her victories came in two different eras against wildly different competition (and Rupert). Yet she rarely took an active role in directing the vote and when she did, it was usually from emotion rather than part of a long-term strategy—and it usually failed. Yes, she successfully conned Russell into voting off Coach when she needed to, but that’s like saying Courtney Yates won individual immunity. She can do it in the right circumstances, but it’s not representative of her overall game.


Sorry, Keith. It’s about more than the hat.

While Sandra has dabbled with various strategies, what her game really boils down to is image control. There are only two questions she needs to worry about from start to finish: Would people vote me off? Would people vote for me to win? As long as she’s getting the right answers to these questions, anything else she does is for entertainment purposes, whether hers or ours.

Sandra’s greatest strength is her ability to grasp the social perceptions of her tribe and where everybody stands within it—she was positively reckless in baiting Russell, because she knew everybody hated him and he had bigger fish to fry than the belligerent little Hispanic lady who sucked at challenges. Not only could she verbally abuse him with impunity, but in doing so, she said what everybody else (i.e. the jury) was feeling.

Obviously, Sandra benefits from the fact that she comes across as so unthreatening. Joe clearly could not get away with what she does. But then, Sandra could never play the puppetmaster game because she has trouble getting people to take her seriously. (Judging by her penchant for vengeance, she probably wouldn’t do a good job of calling the shots anyway.) Equally, she can never count on winning immunity, no matter how much she might need it. But it’s those very shortcomings that make her two-for-two record worth closer examination. When it comes to how other players will vote, Sandra has rarely been wrong. Arguably, that is Survivor in its purest form.

In this season, when it seems every player is fully intent on a different set of rules, focusing on the basics might be the best strategy out there. We have heard a lot from the players about being real, playing nice, and/or connecting with their fellow players on a personal instead of game level. If there is a second thing that Sandra was remarkably good at, it was cutting through the ‘rules’ of the game to let people know how she really felt. Not everybody can get away with getting into fights the way Sandra can (Ironically, Peih-Gee was my winner pick because I thought she could have that skill!), but there’s something to be said with wearing your heart on your sleeve on some issue, even if it’s nothing to do with the game.

The classic motto on Survivor is “I’m not here to make friends.” Wrong: you are here to make friends, friends good enough to give you a million dollars. The most cutthroat player will delude themselves by rationalizing a way to vote off somebody they don’t like over somebody they do. Jurors always find an excuse to award the money to the player they like more.

The greatest thing about friendship is that it’s the best way of really getting to know people. Immunity idols and necklaces are useful, so is an alliance whether you’re running it or tagging onto it. But come Tribal Council, the most important skill for any player to master is knowing where they stand in their tribe.

Cagayan Strong

Since I’m not writing every week, let’s do a part two of this blog so I can puzzle over the biggest mystery of the season: How is it that the Cagayan four are still intact?

Obviously, both Spencer and Tasha have had narrow escapes, but it wasn’t because their tribemates were concerned about breaking up the foursome. Pre-season, everybody was concerned about the fact that there were four players who had previously been on a tribe together. Most of them were also adamant that they did not want to risk working with Kass. Yet as soon as we hit the beach, it appears that those problems went poof!

It is to be expected that pre-game opinions would change as players got to know each other on an in-game basis. But I still can’t fathom how nobody is at least concerned that Spencer and Tasha might go on to work together. I would have put good money on one of the Cagayan four going home in the first three votes. Hell, I predicted one of them (Kass, but Spencer was also in the running) to be gone in the first vote.

I have no answer for this mystery, but I applaud all of them for playing off their target. (Not so much Woo, but he gets applauded for being Woo and bringing his blindside face.) It’s a good reminder that the former Brains certainly had plenty of practice, and this week really reminded us of Tasha’s social strengths—particularly when we had Savage there for contrast.

The Anchor of Angkor


I have to go to a beach without a hammock?

Savage’s edit feels like an ironic misfire: the high-flying businessman with a beautiful and intelligent wife and presumably genetically superior children; he is haunted by the only thing that has ever gone wrong for him—the outcasts twist. I assume production thinks of him as Mr American Dream, yet we’re presented with Mr White Privilege. He could be forgiven for getting depressed at the first hint of a tribe mix-up, but doesn’t he remember how drawing a line between his original tribe and the newcomer (well, returner) worked out for him last time? And that was before he discovered he was in the minority on the tribe that had to start from scratch without supplies on a hostile beach.

Luckily for Savage, he swapped with Tasha whose reaction was closer to: “Oh, I’m on the tribe that sucks? Now we’re playing Survivor! Game on, motherf—” but I paraphrase.

To be fair to Savage, once he got over the shock, he stepped up and did his own share of the scrambling that saved his backside, but he’s lucky that Tasha wasn’t content with throwing her ally under the bus like Kelley Wentworth, that it didn’t backfire on her like Peih-Gee, and that the majority contained the wild cards of Varner and Abi.

Still, the glory of the day belonged to Tasha who reminded us of just how good her social game can be. The way she pounced on the rift between Peih-Gee and Abi is reminiscent of her Cagayan secret scene where she pitted Trish against Kass. Even when she was singled out for her tribe’s loss in the immunity challenge, she danced it off (probably through gritted teeth, but she danced.)

Her sweetness and light approach worked a charm with Abi, but can Tasha break the rule of the season and keep Abi in line for longer than one episode? Tasha’s certainly had experience dealing with crazy people, but only in the short term… Reportedly, Tasha struggled even to talk to either J’Tia or Kass after their respective meltdowns and flips. Tasha takes things personally. Also, with all the disadvantages Angkor has just in living, never mind their tribe draw, it seems likely that they will keep losing—something else Tasha didn’t handle well her first time. Still, she sucked up their first defeat, and she and Savage can rest assured that even if they lose very challenge, the two of them will be the ones to survive it. (In theory, anyway. With Varner and Abi, let’s not count chickens.)

This time, Woo's mine.

This time, Woo’s mine.

I applaud her boldness of calling out Varner at the challenge. It could have backfired, but instead it triggered Varner’s own meltdown. Varner’s the new Tony for Tasha (let’s hope Savage is her Spencer and not her Kass), and she may well have anticipated an over-reaction on his part—or maybe she was simply taking a more Tony approach herself; however, it was very public and also very much a performance. Everybody now knows that Tasha’s playing hard, which is a double-edged sword. It’s great that the jury will credit her for switching up the vote, but only if the other players don’t take her out as a threat before that point.

If Tasha can retain control of the next vote, I’d say she should vote off Abi before the Brazilian firecracker has a chance to turn against her, though Varner wouldn’t be a bad choice either, since he’s going to be their biggest anchor in challenges. She certainly shouldn’t rely on either Varner or Abi. Handily, she once tried to give Woo a million dollars, so he will probably be willing to cooperate. We do know from Peih-Gee that Woo wanted to work with Tasha and Savage rather than their more… excitable tribemates, and Savage has made it clear that his loyalties are with his original tribe. So Tasha should be safe for a few episodes longer.

Underdog Once More

Perhaps paranoia will be raised higher next week, when it’s seen that Tasha and Savage survived the vote—Kimmi has a confessional where she is confident that the ex-Bayon pair will pull through because Tasha and Woo have a connection. If people are at all concerned about the threat of the Cagayan-ers going into the merge / next swap four strong, this could mean very bad things for Spencer. He’s already in the minority on his new tribe, and although this is technically a step up from where he was before, it’s not clear if he has any more options. Of all his former Ta Keo tribemates, Kelly was probably the one he had least in common with.

Stephen, of course, is the most obvious one. We didn’t see them talk, but that could just be editing. Perhaps the editors felt two game-analysts talking was not in keeping with their theme; however, those two are such a likely pair that it’s also possible they deliberately kept their distance from each other. Certainly, if Stephen’s bound and determined to reduce his threat level, he’s not going to buddy up to the other reputed strategist, and everything we saw from him in game suggested he was trying to stick with his original Bayon tribe.

Spare a thought for poor Stephen, who has implied Savage was to blame for the stigma of idol-hunting on Bayon. As soon as Savage was gone, Stephen suggested a group idol hunt (unaware that Spencer was right behind him because nothing is going to go right for Stephen this season.) Despite the editing, it looks like only Monica took him up on the offer for a joint search. To be fair, Monica is a good ally for Stephen: she has all the virtues of Mrs Savage, but none of the sympathies for Mr Savage’s muscular approach to the game. It’s perfectly possible that these two have been working together for some time and well worth keeping an eye on them.

However, it’s Jeremy who finds the clue (probably at a completely different time to their search) and secures what is specifically his idol (somewhere, Savage’s heart is breaking.) Kudos to him. I don’t have time to get into the threat level of the San Juan Del Sur bloc, but Jeremy is easily the biggest target of that threesome. Chances are, he’ll need the idol before Kelley will.

Jeremy’s discovery of the idol takes yet another resource away from Spencer. But let’s give Spencer his due: This episode, he made the boldest move of his Survivor career, when he effectively gave himself a four-month deadline to tell his girlfriend he loved her.

Also connecting through the language of flowers.

Also connecting through the language of flowers.

In all seriousness, I think this was perfect for him. I already talked about making friends on Survivor, and by coming to Jeremy for advice on his love life, Spencer put himself back into the role of young lad rather than superfan gamer. It’s a much safer reputation for him in this game. Spencer’s age would make it difficult for many players to accept him as an alliance leader anyway, but there is nothing more flattering than a protégé. Spencer’s honest admiration for Tony was a good part of why he reached final four, as Tony kept finding excuses to vote somebody else off.

It certainly worked on Jeremy, who suddenly started ‘digging the kid’. Jeremy’s been deprived of the alpha males he originally planned to hide behind. Perhaps he might convince himself that Spencer’s pre-game target will be an effective substitute? On the other hand, if Bayon lose, can he really convince the tribe to keep Spencer over somebody like Kelly who works hard and doesn’t strategize, or Stephen who was part of their original tribe?

Bear in mind that what Varner was apparently trying to do at the challenge was to let Kelly know that Kimmi and Monica had been on the outs on their tribe originally. I’m not sure how he drew that conclusion, but if the women get close, that’s again bad for Spencer. Presumably, Kelly and Spencer would get on board with a vote against Stephen, but even if Kimmi and Monica agree to go along with it for the sake of being in the majority, does Jeremy really want to have to explain himself to other original Bayon members at the next reshuffle?

By making friends, Spencer might only succeed in finding out that he is the easiest vote on Bayon. Luckily for him, it will be tough to lose against Angkor, so he’s got the time to work. If he can win over Kimmi and Monica as well as Jeremy (Stephen’s already his friend), Spencer might just make it through the three tribe stage after all. His next trick will be convincing everybody he’s not in an alliance with Tasha or Woo and certainly not in a super secret one with Kass.

Order from Chaos

Kass has ended up being one of the biggest twists of the season as Chaos Kass has disappeared to be replaced with a Kass who uses her powers for good. A Kass apparently unlike any we have seen before. We all expected her to be a short-lived villain, yet she’s arguably getting the most positive edit out there.

On inspection, it’s not that big a mystery. Obviously, the big disclaimer here is that she hasn’t been to Tribal Council. The Kass we saw in the first episode of Cagayan was very pleasant too. RHAP field reports have indicated that Kass is good company outside of the game.

That’s not to say Kass will return to chaos-mode on her first trip to Tribal Council. There’s another big difference between her game the first time around and this time, and it’s the one that she hit on in her opening confessional: other people’s perceptions of her.

On the Brains tribe, she was left out of the first vote, but Garrett expected her to be a pocket vote for his next strategy. Kass went on the defensive, determined to be calling her own shots and hitting back at anybody who objected. At one point, she lost a reward challenge for her team, because she guessed that the puzzle answer was ‘worth fighting for’ instead of ‘worth playing for’. After she was voted out, she reflected that there was a lesson there: she should fight less and play more.

Has beauty tamed the beast?

Has beauty tamed the beast?

Accordingly, her extended stay with Joey Amazing’s Tropical Vacations was a huge stroke of luck and one she’s taken full advantage of. In an early secret scene, she and Joe talk about how everybody expected her to be volatile when she’s really more of an observer.

She struck lucky with her tribe swap too. From the way she and Ciera were talking in the shelter, they have a working relationship and possibly an alliance. Kass likes Keith and going by their previous seasons, Keith should appreciate Kass for her work ethic. Kass also believes that she and Joe have clicked, and while it’s important to note that we don’t know Joe’s views on Kass, he could do a lot worse than her as an ally. Get a chip on Kass’ shoulder, and she might take Joe to the end to prove she can beat him.

The other advantage new Ta Keo has for Kass is Terry as the resident alpha male. Terry is one of the few people who came into this season wanting to align with Kass, owing to her military record. Never underestimate the power of respect and appreciation ex-military can have for each other—and don’t underestimate what a little respect will do for Kass’ game. Half of her defensiveness last time came out of a desire to prove herself, and that was where her ploy to hide her lawyer career probably backfired on her. Players dismissed the middle-aged reindeer handler, even if she was on the Brains tribe.

Against all odds, Kass’ reputation has done her some favors this season. Players know she’s good at puzzles, they know she’s not a sheep, and they’re greatly relieved to discover that she doesn’t actually spend all her downtime starting fights. It’s too early to tell where Kass might stand in any alliance she’s found for herself, but if anybody needed some time to make friends before having to vote, it was Kass.

Because of this, I’m going to go ahead and predict that we will not be seeing Chaos Kass until the jury’s well-established (assuming she lasts that long). Pre-game, Kass was very specific that she wanted somebody else to backstab the first juror, and certainly in Cagayan she stayed loyal to her new alliance in a futile attempt to wait out the bitterness from her merge vote. I think she can do it. Of course, Tasha, at least, knows exactly how to push Kass’ buttons, and anybody else paying attention should know to prey on her ego. We might see her make a reckless move sooner, but Kass’ own goal is to rein it in and make her move later.

As Ta Keo stands, they’re the least likely to go to a Tribal Council before the next swap, so its four Bayon members are in the best position to keep the numbers through the merge. It’s not clear yet whether it will be first, second or third tribal divisions that hold sway after the merge, but the rule of thumb is that players use their first voting bloc of five or six. I would expect that the post-merge majority will be Bayon, but the Bayon-to-Ta Keo foursome have a chance to become the closest-knit group of that alliance.

If Kass wants to make a power-play at final seven or nine, she could actually do it with numbers rather than by herself. Ciera, at least, will fully support a big move.

If Kass does get that far, it almost doesn’t matter whether she makes a big move or not. That’s the point when everybody’s going to be looking around for threats to win. As much respect as Kass might be earning this time around, I don’t think it’s going to be enough to shake her reputation as a goat. Taking Kass through the game to the end was a daunting prospect pre-season, but by day thirty, it’s going to seem a lot more feasible. So it is that in three episodes, Kass has gone from being the Cagayan-er with the biggest target to the one who’s likely to be on our screens the longest.

When all is said and done, could we be looking at a Kass win? I’m inclined to think that there are still too many people who would have a really hard time voting for Kass, that there is still a long road to the end and plenty of ways for Kass to fall foul of Jeff’s snuffer. So it’s a longshot, but the percentage is definitely greater than zero. Now that I’ve lost my winner pick, Peih-Gee, my dream end to the season is Woo winning the final immunity and fixing his past mistake by taking Kass to the end (let’s say instead of Abi) only to lose yet again. Sorry, Woo.


The Thinker

The Thinker

Let’s be fair to our stealth ninja, because he’s also doing well. OK, he’s only got a one out of three success rate when it comes to being in tune with the vote, but he’s… being Woo, and much like Keith, that’s probably the best way he can play. At one point during Cagayan, I said we had a very improbable set of circumstances where somebody like Woo could get to the end and lose. The fact that he has yet to be called Weasel Woo this season is an excellent point in his favor.

In theory, Woo might be on the bottom of his new tribe, but Tasha and Savage, of all people, are unlikely to be satisfied with an Intentional Matsing, and Woo is their best-rounded player. He’s also 100% more predictable than either Abi or Varner. Maybe I’ll be eating my words come Wednesday night, but here and now I don’t see any way Woo goes home next.

That said, Woo only has a two person buffer before he’s in trouble again, and there are potentially three Tribal Councils in Angkor’s future (assuming a swap at fourteen). They could win one, another tribe could throw one, there could be a double vote where two tribes have to go to Tribal Council… but Woo should be looking for a way to place himself in the top two. That means getting back into a majority with Varner and Abi.

Varner was aware of the insanity that was letting Tasha and Savage take control, so he will presumably try to gather the three ex-Ta Keo. Perhaps Abi will be willing too, now that her self-imposed nemesis is gone. But will Woo want to? Peih-Gee told us it was his decision to abandon Varner, and Abi’s post-vote words might well have burned her bridge with him.

Woo is probably safe whichever way he jumps, but considering his reputation, he’s one of the players who does need to be demonstrating initiative. The best way for him to get a clue how his tribe are voting is for the other players to start accounting for his opinion. Moreso than any other Cagayan players, Woo could never be taken seriously as a puppetmaster, but he called Varner out for not making a deal with him, his supposed ally. If Woo can stand up for himself without losing his wide-eyed good humor, his game odds will improve dramatically.

My advice to the Cagayaners is the same as for all the players: figure out where you stand on your tribe’s voting ballot and then decide what, if any, move you make next.

Of course, as we saw in Marquesas, being in tune with your tribe is not necessarily the best television; however, we needn’t worry. In practice, the Godfather of Survivor is Jeff Probst, and he is playing not to win, but to make good television, manipulating the players into making big moves and telling sob stories. As with all puppetmasters, his machinations occasionally misfire, but by and large, we can count on being entertained.

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