Despite being one of the calmest, most rational players out there, it turns out that Kelley was not in such a good position after all! Those are the kind of curveballs that the Blood vs Water element of this game throws- it doesn’t matter how well Kelley was playing; it was her Dad’s game (or lack of it) that cost her the million dollars.
With that said, the tribe swap, where she was separated from her main allies, forced to play with her Dad who didn’t have a strong social game, and was placed on an athletically weaker tribe, was the cause of Kelley’s downfall. If she had remained at Hunahpu, she would still be a strong contender for the win. Historically, the list of players that watched their games get destroyed by a tribe swap is long. The list starts back in season three, Survivor: Africa, where Silas Gaither was the victim of Survivor’s first ever tribe swap, and it moves all the way through to season 28’s Alexis Maxwell who was separated from her allies and finished one place short of the merge. But how many players have been able to play the tribe swap to their advantage, using the tribe swap to move from a weak position in the game to a position of strength? This week’s lesson in Survivor history comes from a player who was able to thrive in a tribe swap, the winner of season 25, Survivor: Philippines, Denise Stapley.Denise Stapley[/caption]
Denise started out on the Matsing tribe, along with Zane Knight who gave up smoking immediately before leaving for Survivor and asked the tribe to vote him out at the first Tribal Council; Roxy Morris who spent all her time praying and was weak in challenges; Angie Layton, the beauty queen who thought that all of Matsing’s problems could be solved with a plate of cookies; Russell Swan who wanted desperately to lead a successful tribe, but turned out to be inept in both his leadership skills and his challenge performances; and Malcolm Freberg, Denise’s closest ally in the game. Needless to say, Matsing was a failure as a tribe and lost the first four tribal immunities, leaving Denise on a two person tribe- herself and Malcolm. At this point in the game, the Matsing tribe was dissolved, and Denise was sent alone to join the 6 person tribe of Kalabaw. Despite clearly being in a minority, with her only ally in the game sent to the other tribe, Denise went on to not only make the merge, but eventually to win the entire game. How did she do it? How did she use the tribe swap to her advantage? And who amongst the San Juan Del Sur players could benefit from her strategy?
This tribe swap seemed to leave most players at a disadvantage. Over at Hunahpu, Jeremy is not in a good spot. He has gone from being secure in an alliance, to losing one of his best allies. He is in a precarious position in his tribe- as Jeremy correctly identified, Josh just needs to convince Reed to vote with Coyopa, and then ‘my game is history!’. Reed was not part of Jeremy’s alliance, and the offer to work with Josh in a safe majority should be too good to refuse. And again, Jeremy correctly identified that he would be the target of the Coyopa alliance, although it seems like Natalie is playing the stronger game at the moment. At Hunahpu, Natalie was the player who was included in both the men’s and women’s strategic conversations. As completely non-threatening players, Julie, Alec and Wes will be able to coast through to the merge, and for Julie and Wes, their position in the game hasn’t changed. Alec however, is in an interesting position, as the swing vote between the Coyopa alliance and the alliance of singles. Should Alec decide to go with Jeremy’s singles, who will their target be? The obvious candidate should be Josh, but I don’t know if Alec will be open to voting Josh out. So far, we haven’t seen Alec have any independent strategy. He thought that voting out John Rocker was a bad idea, yet he did as he was told. Will he now switch his allegiance? My guess is that with the merge so close, he will not get the chance.
The tribes are physically an uneven match, and unless the next immunity challenge involves one heck of a puzzle (and probably even that won’t make a difference), Coyopa would have to be favourites to return to Tribal Council next week. I would assume that Hunahpu will make the merge without losing immunity, but it is dangerous to assume anything with Jeff Probst coming to the Hunahpu camp next week to offer them some sort of deal in exchange for food. For me, the only fair deal would involve Hunahpu having to vote someone out of the game immediately, and in that event, I would expect Alec to vote along tribal lines. Jeremy and Natalie haven’t had enough time to work their magic yet.
Over at new Coyopa, Jon and Jaclyn both went from the bottom of their respective tribes to the very top of their new one. Just as Baylor said, they became “the hottest couple, period.” They are now able to choose who will be voted out of the game next, and everybody wants to be in an alliance with them. Both of them have made it clear that they are playing as a pair from this point forward, no matter what the consequences are for their individual games. Ironically, working in pairs, which brought on Kelley’s vote off, could be the best thing to happen to Jon and Jaclyn. Keith is non-threatening, and has his idol as insurance against being voted out. Dale is clearly on the bottom of the tribe at the moment, but Jaclyn still doesn’t trust Baylor, and it may be wise to stop her making the merge and potentially meeting back up with Josh. This means that Missy and Baylor, although they are in the majority, are completely dependent on Jon and Jaclyn. Their position is not as strong as it seems. Jon and Jaclyn are the power players in the game at the moment, and if they play this right, they could put themselves in a strong position to win.
The reason that Jon and Jaclyn are in such a good position right now is that they are useful. The golden rule of Survivor is to make sure people want to keep you around, and right now, Coyopa have no reason to vote Jon or Jaclyn out. In Hunahpu, Jon was marked as the next to leave the game; in the new Coyopa, Jon’s challenge strength makes him indispensable. Jaclyn may not have Jon’s strength, but based on past challenge performances, she is stronger than both Missy and Baylor. They also find themselves useful as the only people in the tribe who can feasibly work with anyone they like. Dale and Baylor haven’t been able to work together for the entire game, and Dale’s dislike of Baylor extends to Missy also. Dale won’t be able to work with Missy and Baylor, and so his only option is Jon and Jaclyn. They have found themselves in a very similar position to the position that Denise found herself in when she was swapped over to Kalabaw.
Denise arrived at Kalabaw just as their strongest female, Dana, was struggling to physically cope with the elements. Her body was weak and exhausted, and after being examined by medical, she withdrew herself from the game. This left Denise as clearly the strongest female on the tribe, and when Kalabaw lost the next immunity challenge, and were facing their first Tribal Council, instead of voting out Denise, who had only spent three days with her new tribemates, and was clearly an outsider, it was Sarah Dawson who was voted out. Nearly all the members of Kalabaw expressed reluctance to vote against Denise; Jonathan Penner said “I can’t see getting rid of Denise, she’s a hell of a competitor’, and Jeff Kent also recognised “Denise is stronger than Dawson and Katie”. Denise was needed by the tribe if they were to stand any chance of defeating the dominant Tandang tribe.
But not only was Denise’s challenge strength valuable, the members of Kalabaw also wanted her as an alliance member. She had come into a tribe divided- there was a male and a female alliance, and she was immediately courted by both sides. Katie said “So, my alliance consists of Dana, Dawson, and myself against the guys. We need Denise.” The male alliance also recognised Denise’s value as a swing vote, and she suddenly went from having only one alliance to having six players vying for her vote. In the end, with Dana’s withdrawal from the game, Denise voted with the men, who now had the majority in the tribe. This alliance allowed her to survive the next two Tribal Councils and make the merge. This is the position that Jon and Jaclyn find themselves in now, but how do they make sure that this is not just a short term advantage? How did Denise use her position of power to successfully get her all the way to the end of the game? I think there are three things that Jon and Jaclyn (and those in a good position on Hunahpu, such as Josh and Reed) need to do.
The first thing that Denise did really well was to be useful to everybody, without appearing like she was ever in control. She let others believe they were leading the alliance, and was never seen as forceful or dominant. Being an obvious threat in the game is an easy way to get voted out, and Denise was able to play under the radar whilst still influencing the decisions of those around her. Michael Skupin took Denise to the Final Tribal Council believing that she had done nothing strategic and would struggle to receive any votes. Jonathan Penner summed up Denise’s gameplay in the Final Tribal Council, when he said “I think that one of you has ridden the other two in here like oxen. You have been yoked to a cart and have been ridden in. And now you will be led to the slaughter. And you hear the cheering. You think the million dollars is yours. One of you is right. One of you is standing in the chariot. And the other two are actually just the oxen, listening to the crowd, cheering for the person who led you.” One of Denise’s most brilliant moves was to convince Skupin and Lisa to vote out Abi Maria Gomes who was so disliked by the jury that she was likely the only person that either Skupin or Lisa could have defeated in the final vote. She was able to be a strategic threat without appearing to be too dangerous, and it was that skill that won her the game.
Neither Jon nor Jaclyn are seen as strategic threats by anybody, and this will be to their advantage. As the merge is approaching, there are going to be people with much bigger targets. Their challenge will not be playing under the radar, which I think they both do naturally, but to control the game behind the scenes. While Denise had the other players believing that she wasn’t being strategic, she was gathering her allies and making final four deals. She was in alliances with the Kalabaw men, with Malcolm, and with Skupin and Lisa. She was able to switch alliances depending on which way the game was going. I have no doubt in Jon and Jaclyn’s ability to lay low and avoid the vote, but in order to win the game, they will have to start making some moves behind the scenes. They will have to decide whether they want to stick with Missy and Baylor, or whether they want to be making some side deals. At Hunahpu, Jon’s preference was to keep as many pairs intact as possible, but we don’t know if that is still in his thoughts. They need to think about an alliance that will get them to the end, and start setting themselves up now. Is there a possibility of using Keith to bring Wes over to their side, and then playing in a pairs alliance of six? Or does Jon try to reconnect with Jeremy and Natalie, both of whom he tried to work with at Hunahpu? Whatever their move is, they need to, to use Penner’s analogy, be the driver and not the oxen.
On the other side, Reed’s position in the game has changed in the exact same way that Jon and Jaclyn’s did. He was on the outs at Hunahpu, with no alliance, and the tribe swap could not have come at a better time for him. He has been placed on the same tribe as his boyfriend Josh, who has been playing a strong and strategic game, and has put himself at the centre of several dominant alliances within Coyopa. For the first time in the game, Reed has the opportunity to be part of a dominant alliance. From what we have seen of him, he has been playing strategically- telling Jeremy that Keith had told the tribe that Jeremy had an idol was a good example of Reed trying to get himself into a better position- and now he is given a chance to join a tight knit and loyal alliance. However, his position in the game is far more precarious than Jon and Jaclyn’s- because his position is entirely due to the actions of Josh, and with no allies of his own, Reed is going to find it difficult to win the game. Reed’s best hope of winning would be if Josh is taken out of the game because if Josh remains in the game, then Josh will be seen as the driving force of the alliance, and there will be little that Reed would be able to argue at Final Tribal Council to change anybody’s mind. Reed’s best strategy going forward is to play under the radar and hope that Josh is seen as the bigger threat. Meanwhile, he needs to be gathering his own allies so that he can start playing his own game.
Another important element to Denise’s success at the game was her ability to make genuine relationships with people. When she arrived at Kalabaw, she was excited to leave Matsing behind and ready to embrace her new tribe. She said “Just to be in a new family and in a new tribe is great. And trying to blend in with my new family, trying to figure out what my role’s going to be.” Denise created a connection with each member of the tribe to the point where the men not only valued her challenge strength, but also preferred to have Denise around. She was able to use her highly developed social skills to ensure that her alliance trusted her, and they remained loyal to her after the merge. In a game where everyone is out to deceive and backstab, making people feel like they can trust you is an essential skill.
Jon and Jaclyn had the choice this episode to work with either Kelley and Dale, or Missy and Baylor. They chose Missy and Baylor, despite Jaclyn having some reservations about Baylor’s history. Jaclyn told Jon that she and Baylor had never worked together, and that Baylor had flipped on her in the past. Jaclyn had never had any connection to Dale either, and so they went with the pair they felt most comfortable with. From here, they have two choices- they can either make a real connection with Missy and Baylor and use that alliance to the merge and beyond, or they need to use Dale’s vote to split up the pair. Unless Missy and Baylor feel connected to Jon and Jaclyn and feel that they can be trusted to take them to the end, then at the merge they will want to return to their former alliances- either to Jeremy or to Josh, and that would leave Jon and Jaclyn in a powerless position once again.
The last thing that Denise was able to do that was critical to her success was to reconnect with Malcolm at the merge. When the two tribes merged, Malcolm automatically assumed that he and Denise were allied, but Denise was far more flexible. She said “my plan is to stick with the alliance that I’ve got going with Kalabaw, but at the same time, I truly would like to go back to my original alliance with Malcolm.” She preferred to work with Malcolm, but she was willing to work with anybody that would take her further in the game. Ultimately, she turned against the Kalabaw alliance, and worked closely with Malcolm to forge a final four deal with Skupin and Lisa. She was even willing to go to the final three with Malcolm, and if it were not for his indecisiveness, the two of them would have faced the jury together. Ultimately, he failed to commit to her, knowing that Skupin and Lisa were far easier to defeat in a jury vote, and Denise joined Skupin and Lisa in voting Malcolm out at the final four, ensuring an easy victory for herself. This flexibility is something that the San Juan Del Sur players need to emulate.
Jon and Jaclyn need to remain open to the possibility of working with players from the other side because it may be that Missy and Baylor are not loyal allies, but are looking to join forces with Josh at the merge. Before he left Hunahpu, Jon told Jeremy that he was ‘there for him’, and at the merge, Jeremy is going to be in need of alliances. It would be in Jon’s best interests to keep that option open, particularly if it turns out that he cannot trust Missy and Baylor. Denise was open to playing with her Kalabaw alliance, but she was willing to work with anybody, and that is the strategy that Jon and Jaclyn need to approach the merge with. Reed is in a more difficult position, as he may not have any options available to him outside of Josh’s alliance. But there is hope- at the merge, Denise was not looking to work with Skupin and Lisa, but she used her social skills and their similar ages and interests to form bonds with them. Reed needs to start forming bonds with the other players, or he will find himself lost in Josh’s shadow.
When the tribe swap happened, Jon in particular was thrilled. He knew he had been on the wrong side of the numbers. So had Jaclyn and Reed, and this tribe swap has put them all in positions of power. If they follow Denise’s pattern of success, they may find that their new power position will last beyond the tribe swap, and see one of them as the winner of the game.