This week, Shirin officially became my worst winners pick ever. My recent trend has been to pick people who tend to make the merge and get voted out shortly after (last season, Joe was my pick, and in San Juan Del Sur, I picked Josh Canfield). This season, I managed to pick the second boot, and I’m disappointed- both in my terrible prediction and to see Shirin go home. I enjoy watching Shirin and I think her joy for the game is fun to watch. I thought she would have the perfect game for an all-star season- I thought she was going to play low-key, under-the-radar, and then I knew she had the strategic knowledge to dominate the post-merge game. As it turns out, Shirin doesn’t seem able to play a low-key game. If she had been playing more like Kelley, more like Peih-Gee, even more like Abi, she would still be in the game. But Shirin took a leadership position and simply didn’t put enough work into maintaining her power. Players like Shirin and Spencer need to see that knowledge of the game isn’t enough. Social gameplay will always trump strategy.
And that brings me to Shirin’s fatal mistake- not putting enough effort into keeping her alliance (specifically Abi) happy. I think Varner was always going to swing back to the old schoolers, who are simply less threatening allies than Shirin and Spencer. And Peih-Gee would probably have swung with him. She’s playing the ‘anyone but me’ strategy right now, and she would have gone with the safe option. But it was Abi’s defection to the old school alliance that put Shirin and Spencer in a hopeless position.
Abi, Abi, Abi. What can I say about the game that Abi is playing? It is similar to her game in the Philippines—very emotional and super paranoid. Once again, she finds herself as a puppet- in the Philippines it was Pete pulling her strings, and in Cambodia it is Varner. She’s a volatile player, who makes split second decisions. There have been plenty of players like Abi in the past. The question is, do they make good alliance mates? Varner looks at Abi and sees a goat. He said, “I see Abi as somebody that everybody hates, which makes her somebody that I know I can beat. She is the perfect tool to help me win one million dollars.” It’s an interesting dilemma. On the one hand, Varner is correct. As Stephen Fishbach knows, you don’t want to make it all the way to the Final Tribal Council, only to be sitting next to someone who is unbeatable. Absolutely, it is important to make sure you are sitting with unlikable people- or at the very least, people that are less likable than you are. So in that sense, Abi makes a great final three opponent. Nobody really likes her. She hasn’t got a single real friend out there.
But while it is great to be sitting next to a goat at the end of the game, is it always good strategy to by dragging a goat along the entire time? Sure, it worked for Boston Rob in Survivor: Redemption Island, where he quickly identified Natalie Tenerelli as someone he wanted to sit next to in the Final Tribal Council. But throughout the history of the game, time and time again we have seen a strong player attempt to drag a goat to the end, only for it to fail spectacularly. In Survivor: The Amazon, where Rob Cesternino allied himself with Matthew Von Ertfelda, and managed to get himself and Matthew all the way to the final three. Matthew was the perfect goat- which is why Rob was voted out at final three, with Jenna Morasca taking Matthew to the end for an easy victory. In Survivor: Caramoan, Sherri Beithman identified Shamar Thomas as her goat. He was lazy, argumentative, and like Abi, had no friends in the tribe. Although Sherri did her best to protect him, eventually Shamar brought so much disharmony and misery to the tribe that he had to go. With her power lost, Sherri herself went from being in complete control of her tribe to an ultimate goat who got no votes in the end. This week’s lesson in Survivor history is another example of a player who identified a goat early in the game, only to realise that he couldn’t control her- the twelfth place finisher from Survivor: Gabon, Ace Gordon.
Ace started the game on the Kota tribe and quickly formed a bond with one of the weakest players, Sugar Kiper. Sugar played Survivor emotionally. Her father had recently passed away, and she admitted that her strategy was simply to vote out the bad people. Ace was able to use this to his advantage and became her protector and confidant. When the two of them stayed together after a tribe swap, and Ace made a final four deal with Matty Whitmore, Sugar was part of that deal. Sugar proved to be a useful ally. In fact, when Sugar found the immunity idol, she gave it to Ace, telling him: “If I’m not going to play it, I might as well give it to you.” Once Ace realised that he had found an ally who wasn’t playing to win and would even surrender the immunity idol to keep him safe. he wasn’t about to let her go. Keeping Sugar around became the most important thing in Ace’s game. Sugar had his loyalty, and he thought that he had hers.
Unfortunately for Ace, Sugar was, like Abi, a volatile player. She was playing the game based on her emotions, and those emotions were erratic. She couldn’t be counted on to play a self-interested, predictable game, and in the end this cost Ace dearly. During a conversation with Ken Hoang, Sugar began to think that Ace wasn’t on her side. Ken hinted to her that Ace was planning on using her idol against her, and Sugar took her idol back. Eventually, convinced by Ken that Ace was one of the bad guys, she voted against him, sending him home on day 21.
Ace’s big mistake in the game was putting so much of his fate in the hands of such an erratic player. Sugar’s emotions were easily manipulated, and so it was simple for Ken to convince her to turn on Ace. I worry that Abi is a similar player and that Varner and Terry are falling into the same trap as Ace. Just three days ago, Abi was completely loyal to Shirin, just as Sugar was loyal to Ace at the beginning of the game. It didn’t take much for Abi to turn on Shirin, and once she had decided that Shirin wasn’t on her side, there was nothing that Shirin could do to change her mind. Spencer identified Abi’s destructive nature, saying “That is cancer for a tribe, and deathly cancer for an alliance.” Abi’s already destroyed one alliance. There is no guarantee that she is going to stay loyal to the new alliance for the next 35 days. Is carrying her to the end really a good idea? Is it even possible?
In this cast, there is a distinct lack of possible goats. Many of the players who might have been goats in their last season have stepped up their gameplay considerably. We’ve seen Woo standing up for himself when Spencer and Shirin tried to strategise with him, pointing out to them that they had made no effort to connect with him personally, and he wasn’t going to vote with them now. In Cagayan, Spencer accused him of being Tony’s dog, and not thinking for himself. He’s not making those mistakes anymore. Kass, who had no close alliances in Cagayan and was disliked by the entire jury, seems to have made real friendships in Cambodia. We’ve seen her in confessional talking about how she is playing a much more social game, treating people as people and not just as game pieces. Kimmi, who with her loud, over-the-top personality irritated her tribe in Survivor: Australia, has barely been heard. From what we can see, she’s fitting in just fine. From what the edit is telling us, Abi is the only person out there who doesn’t have social bonds. She’s the only person out there who could currently be considered a goat. And that makes her precious. Jeff Varner has been outstanding TV this season, and he’s shown some strong strategy. But he is far from the only strategist out there. There are plenty of people in this game looking for people they can beat in the end. And everyone is going to see Abi as that person and want to protect her. That makes Abi dangerous. As the only goat in the game, she has way too much power. Varner may control her now. But just as Sugar became a valuable commodity in Gabon, Abi is in a powerful position here. And just as Sugar did, I think Abi is going to align herself with whoever is being nicest to her.
In Survivor: Panama, Cirie Fields famously realised the danger of having such an obvious goat around. In that season, Courtney Marit was part of everybody’s plans. And that left Cirie on the outs. Cirie wanted people to include her in their plans, to want to sit next to her in the end, and so she voted Courtney out of the game. Varner should be seeing the same thing. If everybody wants to be in the final three with Abi, then where does that leave him? When Stephen gets a chance to talk to Abi, to tell her about how he was on the bottom of the Bayon tribe, to connect with her on a personal level, then where does that leave Varner? When Kass gets to sympathise with Abi and treats her as a friend, where does that leave Terry? Can Varner and Terry really spend the next 35 days placating Abi? Can they do a good enough job that she stays loyal?
It is difficult to point to exactly what Ace did to lose Sugar’s loyalty. Ken was able to manipulate her, saying that Ace had plans to use her idol, but Ace never even asked for the idol. Sugar voluntarily gave the idol up. Ace did go with the majority of the tribe to vote out Jacquie Berg, who Sugar liked and trusted, but he wasn’t really in a position of power there, and I can’t blame him for going with the numbers. It wasn’t like Ace had a Shirin moment, leaving Sugar to cry unattended. Sugar was simply too easily manipulated against him, and if he made a mistake, it was to trust her in the first place.
Spencer understood that Abi was emotional. And he knew that her emotional state could be dangerous for his game. He said, “Abi’s an absolute drama queen. The fact that I have to trust someone like that to protect my interests- it is the most frightening thing.” He knew that she was someone that needed to be watched and cared for. She needed to be babysat. This makes his actions all the more confusing. How is it possible that Spencer and Shirin saw that Abi was upset, and yet continued to laugh loudly at her expense? More so, how is it possible that they allowed Terry to talk to Abi for two hours without interruption? How could they not see that, for an emotional player like Abi, what Terry did mattered? From Abi’s perspective, he rescued her, and it shouldn’t be a revelation to anyone that she wanted to align with him. It amazed me that Spencer and Shirin were actually surprised that Abi wasn’t going to vote with them. What did they think Abi and Terry talked about? It should have been clear to them that Abi and Terry were together, and they should have done something to prevent it.
All Abi wants is to feel liked. Terry did that for her by sitting and listening for two hours. Varner did that for her by telling her that her ‘little moments’ turned him on. And while I don’t fault Peih-Gee or Shirin for venting their frustrations about Abi to each other- it was dark, and they were not purposely creating conflict- now that Abi knows Peih-Gee doesn’t like her, it is going to be difficult for them to move on together as members of the same alliance. Peih-Gee and Abi clearly have their differences. They don’t like each other, and Abi hasn’t trusted Peih-Gee right from the beginning. There is no possible way that these two are going to harmoniously work together for the next four weeks.
I think that Varner is too savvy to do anything to upset Abi. But I don’t know if he (or anybody) is able to keep the Brazilian Dragon calm and loyal throughout the entire game. At some point, he is going to have to choose sides. At the moment, I think he would choose Abi over Peih-Gee, simply because she is easier to beat at the end. But I think that would be the wrong choice. Peih-Gee has so far been nothing more than a loyal extra vote for Varner. She got caught up in China trying to play the role of the alpha leader. This time, she is going out of her way not to make any big moves. The biggest selling point for Peih-Gee is that unlike Abi, she’s a predictable player. She’s self-interested. Peih-Gee is not going to be switching alliances based on her emotions. She’s wanted Abi out since day one, but she has voted with her both times. Peih-Gee is making her decisions based on where the numbers are. And that makes Peih-Gee a preferable alliance partner.
I think that in convincing himself that he needs to be sitting next to Abi at the end, Varner is significantly underestimating himself. In Survivor: Gabon, Ace chose to attach his game to Sugar because he saw her as weak and easily manipulated. But he was playing in Gabon! There were plenty of other players on that season that he could have been sitting next to at the end and beaten. There were plenty of players that he could have manipulated. He chose the most emotional player out there, and it was to his detriment.
Varner has plenty of options. He’s an extremely likable guy who is playing a strong strategic game. There are plenty of players that he could beat, and despite what he thinks, he doesn’t need Abi. Just as Cirie recognised that she was a strong enough player to win in the end and didn’t need to be sitting next to a goat, Varner needs to see his strengths. He’s playing a strategic game, but at the same time, he is playing a strong social game. I loved it when he was talking to Abi and told her that he was thinking of aligning with Terry because he’s a nice man- when we know that Varner and Terry have been in an alliance for months. He is liked by everyone, but at the same time he isn’t seen as a threat, even though he definitely should be. I don’t think there is anyone in the game (except perhaps Joe) who is more likable than Varner. He doesn’t need to focus on identifying and controlling goats. For Varner, he needs to concentrate on making it to the end of the game. Because if he makes it to the Final Tribal Council, no matter who is sitting next to him, Varner is going to win the game. And he can do it without Abi.
In Survivor: Gabon, Sugar became a problem for Ace’s game when his alliance members didn’t trust her. Matty had committed to go with Ace and Sugar to the final four, but he was worried that Sugar’s idol gave Ace too much power. Ace being tied to Sugar made him a less desirable ally. If Varner and Terry want to keep Abi around (and I really, really don’t think they should), then they are going to have to do some pretty serious social manoeuvring.
Let’s not forget that the old-school alliance voted for Abi at the first tribal council. Wiglesworth, Terry and Woo all wanted her gone. Perhaps Abi’s desperation and complete loyalty has won over Terry, but I don’t think Wiglesworth or Woo really want to play the game with Abi. We have seen that there is no love lost between Abi and Peih-Gee, and if Peih-Gee had had her way, Abi would have been voted out at the last tribal council. Kelley is simply going where the numbers are. We haven’t seen her fight with Abi yet, but it was heavily implied that when Peih-Gee was laughing about how annoying Abi was, the tribe was on her side. It is going to be difficult to keep this group working together, particularly with a tribe switch coming up next week. To stay safe, some of these people are going to have to find new alliances. And Varner and Terry may well find that when the merge comes, the old Ta’Keo alliance don’t want to keep putting up with Abi anymore. If the numbers are against Abi, then Varner has nothing to gain by sticking his neck out for her.
Jeff Varner may look at Abi and see only dollar signs, but he is playing a dangerous game. As Ace learned, teaming up with such an emotional player at the beginning of the game isn’t always the wisest strategic plan. It is still in the early days, and Survivor is a long game. People who are already annoying on day five are going to be insufferable on day 35. Keeping Abi happy is going to be a full-time job and an exhausting one at that. And then there’s the danger that what happened to Shirin could easily happen again. With Abi along for the ride, there is going to be plenty of opportunity for players on the outside of the alliance to do exactly what Terry did this week- spend a little bit of time listening to Abi vent and come away with Abi’s loyalty, leaving Terry and Varner on the outside looking in. Identifying a goat in the first week of the game, and then carrying that goat through to the end is a risky play. My advice to Varner and Terry would be to cut her loose, and to do it before she manages to sabotage both of their games.