Survivor: Heroes v Healers v Hustlers

Margins of Error

Sarah Channon analyzes the gameplay of the remaining contestants from Survivor: Heroes v Healers v Hustlers to see whose errors are likely to cost them the game.

Margins of Error

To open with the bleeding obvious, it is easier to lose Survivor than it is to win.

Put another way, everything you do in the game has more potential negative outcomes than positive ones. Every move is a gamble, and nobody makes it through thirty-nine days without a few missteps. This, of course, provides excellent fodder for online debates as you can’t praise a single player without somebody pointing out why they’re actually terrible at this game.

It’s less advantageous for the players. Thankfully, only one person can be voted out at a time so not every mistake is a fatal one. (Though some mistakes may catch up with you later.) Every player has a margin of error… but these margins weren’t created equally.

Take the original Hustler tribe and Lauren. The rest of the hustlers were twenty-five or younger, still figuring out what they wanted to do in life. Lauren was a thirty-five year old single mother, a smalltown fisherwoman committed to her family. She didn’t look like a challenge asset, and she had nothing in common with the rest of her tribe. Most of us looked at Lauren and figured she would be the first one off the Hustlers if not the entire season.

Contrast Lauren with Patrick, who was the second strongest player on this physically weak tribe, had two tribemates (Ryan and Devon) of the same age, race, and gender to find common ground with—and by chance had a pre-existing relationship to draw on with Ali. Patrick searched harder than any other Hustler for the hidden immunity idol; Lauren didn’t look at all.

As just about all the players acknowledged pregame, idol-hunting is very dangerous: the only positive outcome is to find it; the negative (and more likely) outcome is to be caught looking for it but not find it. You acquire the target of playing aggressively, of being devious, but you have no advantage to compensate.

Lauren was already an obvious candidate for the vote. Her name was coming up whether she made a mistake or not, and being seen idol-hunting would widen the rift between her and the other players. In Redemption Island and South Pacific, the older women went idol hunting and paid the price—Kristina Kell even found the idol, but it only delayed her pre-merge boot.

Lauren played conservatively, foregoing the idol in favour of building social bonds. Confident in his own security, Patrick looked openly for the idol, worried less about annoying his tribemates… and overestimated his own margin of error.

Your margin of error and your skillset are two separate things, but both are factors in how you’ll fare in the game. Lauren was walking a tightrope to reach the tribe swap while Patrick was crossing a bridge. It turned out that Lauren had the skill to balance on that tightrope, but Patrick should still have beaten her across. Fortunately for Lauren, Patrick didn’t just walk across his bridge—he decided to do cartwheels along the handrail. Patrick slipped, and Lauren joined Devon, Ryan, and Ali on the other side of the swap.


Setting the Margins

Fortunately for players, your margins aren’t fixed, and one vital tenet of Survivor gameplay is to widen them wherever possible. Of course, the game has a dynamism outside of your own actions, so you also have to be aware of when your margins are tightening around you and adapt accordingly. Performing well in challenges will widen your margin of error in the tribal portion of the game, but might well narrow it in the post-merge. Oh, and don’t forget, this is also situational. Maybe coming on strong in challenges will encourage your allies to keep you to stop others from winning immunity.

So what defines your margins?

1. Your common ground with others on your tribe. The closer a relationship you can establish, the more likely they are to forgive your mistakes, and the harder it will be for them to vote you off. In Micronesia, we saw Cirie, nurse and mother, forge an intimate bond with Amanda and Parvati, the California girls, but when it came down to a final two, she couldn’t overcome her differences. Amanda was always going to relate better to Parvati.

2. Stereotypes and Archetypes. Survivor is an ongoing demonstration of how perception becomes reality, so biases, both conscious and unconscious, come into effect. In the pregame, several players categorized Chrissy as a mother and Joe as a Tony; neither is a welcome archetype if you want freedom to play. Joe has chosen to lean into the curve, riding with the comparisons despite the target that comes with them. Chrissy’s aim was to downplay her motherhood, instead locking hard into gamebot mode—though the post-boot interviews remember her most for swearing on her kids.

3. The Climate of the Game. Who is and isn’t in danger depends on the stage of the game (the pre-merge is different from the post-merge is different from the endgame) and the individual dynamics of the season. After the swap, Chrissy found herself on Lauren’s tightrope, being two decades older than the rest of her tribe. However, the dominance of the Healers put Roark on a tightrope of her own, while a game twist gave Ryan and Chrissy a bond that countered the common ground Roark shared with Ali and J.P.

4. Your Actions. As I said above, players can edit their own margins, particularly if they have an advantage or immunity… but there’s a reason this comes last. Ultimately, how much leeway you have for mistakes depends on how others see you. You have to be particularly self-aware to address that, and even then, you can’t remove those margins entirely.

At this early merge point of the game, the players have been worried about immunity, targeting those who are most likely to win it in the future and least likely to have an idol in the now. How can a player in the minority improve their odds? If you’re a man, you’re probably OK for the first vote or two. Survivors have figured out that far more men than women find idols, and this is the sixth season straight that a woman has been targeted after the merge, as players nervous in their new, large tribes seek a safe vote.

Short of having Tribal Council itself cancelled (Aubry in Kaoh Rong), the most effective solution for women seems to be an idol (Jenn in Worlds Apart and Kelley—though not Kass—in Cambodia). Jessica knew that Dr. Mike had an idol and had a good relationship with him and Joe. She could have asked either of them to play their idol on her at Tribal Council. Just making the rest of the tribe nervous of the possibility might have been enough to push the target back to Cole and Joe.

Alternatively, you can throw yourself on the mercy of a key player in the majority, as Michaela did with Cirie in Game Changers. Jessica had a good relationship with Lauren, but she believed Lauren would stick with their Yawa five. It didn’t occur to her to market herself as a loyal ally for Lauren in the future. Desi made that switch in gameplay, but she didn’t have that one special bond on which to capitalize.

Then too, this particular majority is wary of people who know how to play from the bottom. Ryan noted the people who win are the most average of their season. Devon’s plan was to slide between bigger physical / mental threats, while Ben summed up his philosophy as: “Yelling doesn’t get nothing done.” Only Ashley was talking about Big Moves.

It’s probably no coincidence that Ashley’s also the one most worried about Joe. Joe wants to play the Big Moves game—like Patrick, he can’t just cross the bridge; he has to showboat. Unlike Patrick, Joe had an idol for his first two Tribal Councils. The idol is the ultimate margin extension, saving Joe outright at the tribe swap. That idol play and the Tony comparisons then saved Joe at the merge, when the majority targeted Jessica.

Yet Joe played his second idol that night, a game error that could well have cost him at the next Tribal Council when the majority had the confidence to split the vote. The Tony comparisons were alive and well; they were genuinely concerned about Joe finding another idol.

However, Joe wasn’t laying low and playing nice; Joe wasn’t likely to be somebody’s biddable number once the bigger targets were picked off; Joe also wasn’t likely to win immunity at an inopportune time. Desi was. Cole was.

So this majority has widened Joe’s margin of error—especially now most of them know Ryan has the only idol out there to find. Joe himself has struggled without an idol, so he’s trying the gambit of making himself into the goat. After all, it doesn’t matter how badly he plays if the majority is determined to drag him a little further.

Ashley doesn’t want to keep Joe around, but she can’t gather the votes. Chrissy was reluctant too, but for her, Ben, Ryan, and anybody else who’s perceived as a power player, it makes much more sense to keep Joe around. Joe’s distracting the alliance from the threats within their own ranks. His obnoxiousness has them united in solidarity with each other: “We do know what we’re doing. We are playing.”


Dividing the Seven

Personally, I think the majority really does know what they’re doing. OK, so J.P.’s, you know, going to take it one day at a time, see what happens, and things like that… but between everybody else, there could be a number of sub-alliances. All four heroes get on well with each other. Each hustler has a hero they’re tight with: Ryan to Chrissy, Devon to Ashley, Lauren to Ben. Lauren doesn’t seem to have a particular loyalty to her original tribe, but Devon and Ryan were solid, and Devon and Lauren might have a bigger connection than we’ve seen, seeing as Devon was the one who pushed to keep her over Patrick.

While some alliances are locked in, it’s probable that not everybody’s decided who will be their core four come final seven. (Or eight. Or nine.) Right now, nobody’s on the bottom. Who goes first depends on who screws up and how. That’s why everybody’s playing conservatively: they already have enough options that they can afford to lose the healers.

Except everybody’s margin of error narrows as the field gets smaller. How long before the seven start worrying that Devon, J.P., or Ashley will win immunity at an inopportune time? That Ryan, Chrissy, or Ben have too much power in the game?

Lauren is the outlier here. The woman on the tightrope at the start of the game suddenly has the widest path going forward. Why? Because now stereotypes are working in her favour. Even though Lauren won immunity, heavyset, older women aren’t supposed to be challenge beasts. Even though she has an extra vote, mothers are supposed to be loyal. And everybody knows crabby introverts won’t smooth talk your allies into a betrayal.

When Lauren realized that getting her vote advantage would mess up the vote-split, she told Ben. This was a huge risk considering the precedent for people knowing another player has an advantage. Ben is not the most trusting individual as we saw when Ryan confided in him. At first, Ben was relieved to hear Ryan had an idol because it meant Joe didn’t have it. Then he thought further ahead and realized he didn’t trust Ryan to look out for Ben’s best interests with his idol.

However, Ben has been loyal to Lauren. She didn’t even sugarcoat her revelation: she was blunt that she intended to bank her vote regardless; she was just giving him a heads up that they needed to alter the vote split. Ben never questioned her, apparently confident that when that extra vote gets used, it will benefit him as well as Lauren.

Unlike Ryan, Lauren has known Ben for several days. They’re only a year apart in age, both have kids, and both come from a working class background. It’s not just stereotype working in her favour here, it’s common ground. Ben and Lauren seem genuinely fond of each other and—uniquely, in this season—have committed to keeping this secret to themselves. Both Ryan and Lauren took a risk by sharing their information, but Lauren’s risk had a better chance of a positive outcome.

Ryan also told Devon and Chrissy about his idol. It seems neither knew he was telling the other, so that gave him a payoff in terms of their trust and confidence, while the risk was small as both had previously kept a secret for him.

Ryan did have the sense to spend a few days getting to know Ben before confiding in him. However, the in-game climate had changed. A regular idol is very different from a time-limited one, and Devon and Chrissy had needed Ryan in a way that Ben didn’t. Ryan’s move backfired catastrophically when Ben told Devon, for Devon had got Ryan to agree that he would tell nobody else.

There was a similar situation pre-merge, when Dr. Mike discovered that Jessica’s advantage wasn’t as secret as planned, but Devon reacted very differently. He’s not confronted Ryan with this new information; he’s bearing it in mind. Devon is much less likely to give Ryan the benefit of the doubt going forward, but Ryan doesn’t know his margins have narrowed where Devon is concerned. He thinks he’s still got a lot of room to manoeuvre there.

This isn’t to say that Mike’s decision to get answers from Jessica and Cole was a bad thing. It built him trust with Jessica while reducing her faith in Cole, and he was able to turn that into a working relationship and stay close to Ben and Lauren. Taking the more proactive move there paid off for him.

I’m not so sure that going proactive this week did. As Rob has been saying on Know It Alls, Mike was in the best position of the healers. Nobody suspected he had an idol, and he had a connection with Ben and Lauren to work with—even if he did consider Ben the biggest threat in the game. While everybody was focused on pagonging the healers, he should have ducked behind Cole and Joe, humbled himself, and appealed to Ben and Lauren individually for mercy. Paranoia is understandable… he’d already lost Ben by this most recent episode, but he needed to have the nerve to keep quiet and hang onto his idol for one more week.

For Mike and Joe, this is a game of chicken. They’re on the tightrope now, but the seven’s bridge is shrinking and they know it. The moment the majority start jostling for room is the moment the minority can find breathing space. It might happen at nine, it might not happen until seven… Does the minority stand their ground and wait for the majority to break first, or do they jump and hope to land on their feet?

It’s not clear what Mike intended with his Big Move this week, but the result was a wasted idol and the majority looking at him instead of at each other. The concerns Ashley and Chrissy had about Joe finding an idol now apply to Dr. Mike, plus they know that Mike has other tools in his shed. Mike is intelligent. (Not that Joe is necessarily considered stupid, but he’s not got a medical degree and proven puzzle ability.) Mike can play nice. Whether they’re worried about Big Moves or Small Moves, everybody on the majority has to consider Mike a threat now.


The Road to the End

This means Joe could be the last healer standing, and I doubt the majority will wait until final seven before they turn on each other. Ryan’s aggressive enough to want to strike before somebody comes after him. Chrissy, our numbers girl, might want to eliminate the unknown quantities in her own hand. Ben’s had such a spotlight on him, he must be paranoid. Ashley’s the Big Moves enthusiast, and Joe’s provoking her.

Of the group, Ryan and Ashley are the most likely to take the first fall. As I said before, Ryan doesn’t know he’s lost trust with Devon and Ben, and while Ashley seems liked, the secrets never come around to her. You don’t want a blind spot when you’re this close to the edge.

Ben and Chrissy are bound to make mistakes as they prepare their endgame, but they have a candid working relationship with each other and the trust of their allies, so I don’t think their next misstep will be fatal. However, in the long term, their road to victory is too narrow. Ben’s so obvious a threat, and Chrissy… well, she has the slimmest margin of all. Older women rarely have their game received well. The last four boots (all young women, all friends outside of the game) have had some very negative things to say about Chrissy which a good chunk of the fandom has latched onto.

This is nothing new. Both fans and players have a tendency to blame contestants for going against their favourites, and there is very little sympathy for the older woman who does so. We saw it with Dawn in Caramoan when she voted off Brenda, we saw it with Kass in Cagayan when she worked against Spencer, we saw it all the way back in Micronesia with Cirie of all people when she took out Yau Man.

Cirie obviously made up all the ground she lost and more, but even for Kass and Dawn, the hysteria died down. The fandom and players might still disagree over their gameplay, but they are willing to consider that the women in question have some redeeming features.

That took longer than thirty-nine days though. Kass tweeted after the premiere that the “40+ Mom” was the hardest archetype to play in the game. I’m not in on that superlative, but it’s certainly one of the toughest. Only Denise has converted it into a win, and that was partly because she had two people older than her in the final three.

Chrissy’s overcome the stereotype enough that she’s getting credit for her strategy, she’s got enough connections that she should be shaping the endgame, but it seems she’s not solved the riddle of being well-liked. Like so many older women before her, her ceiling may be losing finalist.

So who has got the easiest path to victory? It’s tempting to say J.P. who is a mile off everybody’s radar, including his own. When will J.P. ever be a threat? But when will he take the initiative? He’s never capitalized on the common ground he has with the other young players, and he’s never tried to gather information. In this game climate, around final five, everybody’s going to agree that J.P. hasn’t pissed any of the jury off, and nobody’s going to feel they lose anything by cutting him.

I’d say there are three people still in the game who really need to work at it to screw up: Devon, Lauren and, weirdly, Joe. In fact, I’m pretty confident that Joe will fail to get any traction over the remaining fifteen days of the game, but I think the other players are going to be more heavily penalized for smaller mistakes. I don’t know if anybody’s going to plan on taking Joe to the end, but as we get down to the nitty-gritty, he may always be the lesser threat.

The question is, if Joe never gets in the loop, never has any influence on the game, but still winds up at the end… would the jury vote for him? There’s where the Tony typecasting really pays off for Joe. Ashley said: “I don’t know if he’s really good at the game or really good at being annoying.” We can debate the answer to the question, but the key point is that it’s up for debate. Joe comes off as sly, and so the jury is willing to believe that any social failings are all part of the plan. That they are not only deliberate, but they’re also a good idea.

I expect Joe’s path is going to narrow before he gets to the end, but if he avoids the fall, Final Tribal Council could be a cakewalk.

Devon is more straightforward. Stephen theorized in this week’s blog that he’s deliberately playing up his Surfer Bro side. Stephen’s right that it’s a matter of semantics as to how much this is effort and how much this is who Devon is, but it’s certainly his stated plan to use that stereotype. (He’s no actual actuary, but what he’s hiding is a degree in finance.) At twenty-three, Devon’s also the joint youngest player of the season (with Ryan), which helps his quest to avoid being seen as a threat.

Devon can take a more dominant role—we saw that at the merge when he actively pulled numbers together. He probably can do cartwheels along the handrail if needed, but he doesn’t have to showboat. He’d be perfectly happy skipping across his bridge all the way to the end. Once there, his genial nature combined with an ability to give well-reasoned answers would make him a formidable opponent before the jury, but I don’t know if anybody is going to figure that out in time.

Finally, we have Lauren, who’s safe now but could have the same Final Tribal Council stereotyping as Chrissy, even if she’s only thirty-five. But Lauren has Chrissy. Part of the reason Tony was able to win despite a shaky social game was that the jury spent all but one night rooting against Kass. In Denise’s case, the jury directed most of their older woman stereotyping at Lisa Whelchel.

We’ve seen a similar effect in play already. Lauren betrayed Jessica’s trust, but Jessica praised her in post-boot interviews while criticizing Chrissy, who she had barely known—but who had blindsided two of the women who greeted Jessica at Ponderosa. Future jurors might care less for Lauren, but while Chrissy’s still in the game, I don’t think there’s room at Ponderosa for a campaign against Lauren. (This isn’t to discredit Lauren’s own social game in any way, just noting the current climate.)

More than any other player, Lauren is intent on playing a cutthroat game, keeping in mind her family and how they can use her winnings. I’m curious to see what she does with her extra vote because she’s not the type to make a big move for the sake of it, but she’s smart enough to put it to effective use. She should have a visible case for the jury by day thirty-nine. Is her stereotype strong enough that her tribemates will keep dismissing her as a threat?

This isn’t to say Lauren, Devon, and Joe are probably the final three, nor even that one of them will win. Survivor remains a difficult game, there are plenty of competent players left, and the win conditions will change on a daily basis. Just as Patrick “should” have made it to the tribe swap and Lauren “shouldn’t”, the real probability here is that somebody will defy our expectations.

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