Survivor: Game Changers

Lessons in Survivor History: You Can’t Change Your Own Game

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: You Can’t Change Your Own Game

It was always a likely outcome- especially given how many of the cast were targeting him in the Dalton Ross pre-game press. But it doesn’t make it any less devastating. And so, I will start my first blog with a solemn moment of silence for Team TV.

Tony was one of the most exciting prospects going into Survivor: Gamechangers, and it is so, so disappointing to see him go out this early. We only got to see the beginning of a spy bunker! Not even a glimpse of a bag of tricks! And so, Tony is off to Loser’s Lodge. In the battle of the former winners, Sandra emerges victorious. And she was obviously pretty happy with herself as Tony walked out the door. But while Tony going home bought Sandra at least three more days in the game, I think it is a move she will come to regret. Tony, Malcolm and Caleb were right. The stronger players need each other. Once one is gone, the others are exposed. With Tony gone, there are only two winners left. And nobody seems threatened by JT. Sandra has left herself exposed in a big way.

Part of the problem for Sandra is just how differently this game has begun for her. In her previous two seasons, she played on strong tribes. In Survivor: Pearl Islands, she was on the Drake tribe. The Drake tribe won the first three challenges. On Survivor: Heroes vs Villains, Sandra was on the Villains tribe. They won the four of the first five challenges. Sandra is a challenge liability, and she knows it. But she has always been on tribes that have been able to compensate for her weaknesses. Sandra has never had to face the prospect of going to Tribal Council in the first week of the game.

But this season, she’s been to Tribal twice already. And she’s about to be thrown another curveball- next episode, we’re swapping tribes, and Sandra has yet to experience that. The old Sandra game of sitting back and making friends isn’t going to work this time. Her biggest liability- her physical weakness-has been exposed at Mana, and it is going to become even more exposed on a six-person tribe. Instead of relying on her tried and true game style, Sandra has tried to change the way she plays. This may have led to the Tribal Council outcome that she desired- but can it lead her to a third million dollars?

Some of the Game Changers cast are coming in determined to change things about their game. Some seem to understand who they are, and playing to their strengths. Hali, in particular came across to me as someone with a lot of self-awareness. She knows that she is being underestimated, and sees a way to use that to her advantage. I was worried about her coming into this season- I thought that she would overcompensate for her quiet game in Worlds Apart, and come charging out of the gate wanting to make ‘big moves’. But instead, Hali has embraced her quiet reputation. She’s doing what works for her- laying low, and making friends. But is this going to get her to the end? Is it going to get her the respect of the jury? What is the best plan coming into a season- do you try and change your weaknesses, or do you embrace the person that you are?


This week, our lesson in Survivor history comes to us from season 21- Survivor: Nicaragua, and the first boot, the legendary Wendy Jo DeSmidt-Kohlhoff. Wendy is my favourite first boot of all time, and I have been hanging out to write about her story. Survivor: Nicaragua began as a two tribe season, with the two tribes divided by age. As one of the older women, Wendy was placed on the older Espada tribe, where she was out of her depth right from the very beginning. As the rest of the tribe got stuck into building a shelter and getting to know each other, Wendy felt increasingly isolated.

Wendy had gone into the game with a very keen sense of who she was. Her husband had prophesied that she was doomed to be the first one voted out, because at home she talked incessantly. Knowing this, and fearing that her husband was right, Wendy decided that she was going to come into the game and be a completely different person. She isolated herself, spending time sitting in silence. When spoken to, she responded with one word answers. But it didn’t matter what Wendy did- whether she talked to her tribe or not. After a very short conversation with her, Marty Piombo walked away saying: “She’s a little weird.”

At Tribal Council, realising that her new, quiet personality wasn’t being accepted by her tribe, she decided to open up and show them more of her true self. She said: “Maybe I should have been talkative, and share everything, but I didn’t want to come in talk, talk, talk and drive people crazy. People don’t like people who talk all the time. So I stayed pretty quiet. And that is not me. My nickname is chatterbox.” She got upset that nobody had made an effort to speak to her. And this new side of her personality was even more irritating to the tribe. Even Holly Hoffman, who she had aligned with on day one was put off by Wendy’s outburst. She was voted out unanimously.

Wendy’s the kind of person that could play Survivor limitless times, and never get the win. No matter how hard she tried to fit into the group, and not be strange, she just couldn’t help it. Wendy was a goat farmer from Montana who wasn’t used to interacting with people. She was always going to be an outcast. But the way she played didn’t help matters. Being talkative is so much part of her personality that her friends at home call her a chatterbox. She spent her three days on Survivor trying to hide a vital part of her personality. And it came across as strange and untrustworthy. I’m certainly not saying that had Wendy played as her true self, then she would have won the season. Clearly, that is not the case. But had she just been herself, made friends, and been seen as open, honest, and perhaps someone who is easily manipulated, then she would have made it past that first vote.

Tony came into this game with a huge target on his back. He was well known for making crazy moves, finding idols and blindsiding his alliance. And right out of the gate this season, he was running around looking for idols. Like Wendy in Nicaragua, he had ‘first boot’ written all over him. But unlike Wendy, he didn’t try to change. As he said in his opening confessional, “I already know I’m a huge threat. I created the spy shack. I found the special idol. I voted out my closest ally. And just when you think you’ve seen it all, you ain’t seen nothing yet.”

He leant into his crazy reputation- and I think it was the right move for him. Had he tried to pull off some kind of Wendy Jo move, and adopt a new style of playing, he would still have been an early boot. Playing aggressively wasn’t his problem here- his problem was that he mismanaged Sandra. Tony’s strategy of going in, embracing his threat level, and gathering the other threats around him, was perfect. And it came so, so close to working for him.

Tony isn’t the kind of person that has another speed. He can’t just slow down and relax. When he’s on Survivor, he’s working. He can’t just relax, and sit around the shelter. He can’t sleep through the night. Tony has to be doing something. Only three days into the game, Tony was already saying “I’m bored. I’m tired of just sitting back. I want to get into the game already.” Tony can’t help himself. Tony’s got to be Tony. And for him to be anything else would have been impossible.

Of course, Tony also had no reason to change his game. Whatever he did in Cagayan, it worked. It might be a results-oriented way of looking at it, but I think that it is understandable for Tony to assume that he played perfectly last time and has no reason to change anything. However, the parts of Tony’s game that have been lauded by everyone are the flashier parts–the idols, the blindsides, the entertaining TV character. Watching Cagayan, you can see that Tony wasn’t always the crazy player that we grew to love. He couldn’t stand Cliff Robertson from the beginning and wanted him out, but he sat back, bided his time, and waited until he had the numbers. Tony didn’t rush into Cagayan announcing that he was searching for idols. He went into Cagayan attempting to make friends. Tony was trying to emulate his winning game- but it was like he forgot all the subtleties that he had in Cagayan.

Sandra knows her strategy perfectly. As she said, “my game is pretty simple. As long as it’s not me, I don’t care who goes home.” She knows what works for her. But when she faced off with Tony, Sandra’s ‘anyone but me’ strategy abruptly changed. It went from ‘I’ll vote whichever way you want’ to ‘Tony’s got to go.’ She went from being a loyal follower to being the alpha– she’s leading, everyone else is following her. It seemed that her ‘anyone but me’ strategy went out the window.

To be fair to Sandra, although she markets herself as being ‘anyone but me’, she’s shown this side of herself before. At the merge in Heroes vs Villains, she was very clear with her strategy– it had to be Russell who was voted out. She spent most of that game trying to get Russell out. The difference is that this time, she’s gone after the power player, and it worked.

Throughout this episode, we heard numerous theories as to how Sandra has won the game two times. From her strong social game, to her ability to build an alliance in fifteen minutes, to the fact that people always thought they could vote her out next week, everyone seemed to have a different idea. My personal favourite was that they couldn’t let Sandra get her army together, because that was how she won the game! It is clearly true that Sandra does have a strong social game. And she is good at minimising the target on herself and making sure people never come after her, but the way that she wins the game is by being the foil to a villain. The jury like her and root for her, because she is the one person who isn’t afraid of Russell. She’s the one person who will say to his face: “I’m against you Russell.” She’s the person who tries and tries to get the villain out. It doesn’t work, but at the end of the day, the jury rewards her efforts. To win the game, Sandra needs a Russell. Or a Johnny Fairplay. Or a Tony.

So now Sandra finds herself in a bit of a Wendy predicament. She’s in a role that doesn’t suit her natural playing style- and judging by her reaction to Tony as he was walking off set, it might have gone to her head. For the first time, people are looking to her as the strategic leader of an alliance. Yes, they are headed into a tribe swap, and her alliance is likely to be short-lived, but right now she’s in a position where she has to play from the front. And I’m not sure that Sandra knows how to do that. Without Tony in the game, Sandra (with perhaps the exception of Cirie) is the biggest threat left in the game. She won’t be able to play the underdog role. The jury doesn’t exactly find themselves rooting for the person who is constantly screaming about still being the queen. I’m rooting for her success- but I think that Sandra will be able to say ‘hi to Ciera’ for herself before too long.

Sandra isn’t the only one out there who is trying to make a huge adjustment to her game. We saw Michaela behave in a very Wendy Jo-like fashion. Michaela knows that she wears her heart (and her emotions) on her face. She cannot hide the way that she is feeling. She seems to think that if she can just keep her emotions in check, she’ll be okay. It didn’t take her long to realise that her brutal honesty is just a part of her personality. It is hard enough to restrain herself in her everyday life, but add in the hunger, loneliness and exhaustion that comes with playing Survivor, and keeping her emotions in check was going to be an impossible task. Just like Tony has to Tony, Michaela has to Michaela. It’s what makes her such an entertaining character. In confessional , she used the phrase “I’m not trying to let them see how big Michaela can be- but you can’t contain greatness.” Wendy couldn’t contain her eccentricities, and it led to an early exit. Michaela might get lucky and find people who are willing to work with her, but she has to build real and genuine relationships. And so she can’t keep pretending to be someone that she simply isn’t. Michaela is who she is, and once she relaxes, and interacts honestly with her tribesmates, I think she’ll do a lot better in the game.

Sarah Lacina stood out as someone else who is desperately trying to change the way that she is playing. Last time we saw Sarah, being a police officer was incredibly important to her. So much so, that she let it define her. She aligned with Tony purely because he was a fellow cop. When she swore her loyalty on the badge, and he returned the oath, he had her complete trust. And it seems that according to Sarah, that was where she lost the game. She said: “Last time I played like a cop. Look where it got me. This time, I’m playing like a criminal, and we’ll see where it gets me. My word is not my bond this time.”

If Sarah thinks that her MO in Cagayan was honesty, she’s kidding herself. Sure, compared to Tony, Sarah was a saint, but she did her fair share of lying and deceiving too. The night that Sarah went home, she was rallying her troops to write Tony’s name down- despite swearing on her badge that she was with Tony to the end. Sarah made her fair share of mistakes the first time round, but being too honest was not one of them. And if she is going to make a conscious effort to lie to her allies, and to be untrustworthy, then it will be her downfall. Sarah is in a good spot right now, and her best move is to lay low, and put her effort into making sure President Lacina doesn’t rear her head any time soon.

There were others who were leaning into their strengths. Ozzy was quiet, got into the majority, and performed well in the challenges. JT’s game plan seems to be similar. Debbie was out there, being Debbie, using her kookiness as an asset the same way that she did in Kaoh Rong. And Malcolm impressed me too. His opening confessional was “In Survivor: Philippines and Survivor: Caramoan, I swung for the fences, made some splashy firework type moves. I have a reputation to uphold, and I’m going to keep making big moves.” Malcolm knows what works well for him. Usually I’m not a huge fan of those making a big move for big moves’ sakes, but I do think that there are some players (such as Malcolm or Tony) for whom flashiness is a natural part of who they are.

Malcolm isn’t going to be able to sail through the game and be allowed to reach the final three. Even Jeremy Collins, whose game it seems that Malcolm is attempting to emulate, needed the help of idols. Without the idol, Jeremy would have gone home at final six. Like Jeremy, Malcolm is charming and likable, and has no trouble finding allies. That’s what makes him so good at the game- but it will also put a target on his back. He’ll need to be making moves if he wants to win this game, and I’m glad that he knows this.


In Survivor, you are stripped down to the most basic version of yourself. You are hungry, tired and exhausted. You are paranoid. You are away from everyone that you love, and so, it is unrealistic to think that you can go into the game and be someone that you are not. Wendy Jo went into Nicaragua trying not to let her eccentric side show- and failed. Wendy couldn’t help being Wendy. These players might be able to make small adjustments, but we shouldn’t be expecting to see them changing their games dramatically. They are who they are.

Last time we had an all-star season, the theme was second chances. The narrative of the season was all about fixing mistakes. It was 20 people, all of whom carried regrets from their previous games, and were on a mission to rectify past errors. Playing the same game again doomed you to failure. I think that this season is going to be different. I think that those who play to their natural strengths and talents are going to succeed. The winner isn’t going to be someone like Tony or Sandra, playing a big flashy game. I think that when Jeremy won Survivor: Cambodia, he set a model for others to follow. Those with a naturally easy-going personality, those who put others at ease- those are the ones to watch out for.

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