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The Survivor Strategic Game – When’s the Best Time to Strike?

There’s a frequent discussion when Survivor reaches its finale about which players made “big moves”. This question is used to dismiss players that stayed in the background and avoided the target. While it’s usually necessary to take a few chances to win the game, the timing of those choices is critical. You risk falling into the trap that Cochran faced in the South Pacific. He made a huge move and switched alliances, but all it did is ensure his defeat further down the road. Players need a plan about what comes next or will find themselves adrift a few episodes later. Another good example is Penner in the Cook Islands, who betrayed his alliance for a new group yet was voted out two episodes later. His choice benefited others and helped Yul to win the game, but it may have killed his own chances.

Although these examples differ from what Tony did this week, they provide a reminder that flipping on your tribe is extremely risky. Rob Cesternino could jump back and forth among alliances, but few are that adaptable. Tony’s choice to vote against Cliff is daring and seems questionable for his long-term game. It has the potential to put him in the driver’s seat in the near future. The question is whether he can adapt to trickier situation of the battles to come. He’s shown a knack for working behind the scenes without drawing attention, but it’s going to be a lot harder after his latest move. The priceless looks on Lindsey’s and Woo’s faces said it all. They won’t trust him again, and the others have seen that he doesn’t have a problem with switching allegiances in the right situation.

Removing a Giant Shield

cliffpole Spencer and Jeremiah’s comic attempts to remove Cliff.[/caption]

It may seem early to eliminate the big guy, but we’re probably only a few episodes from the merge. Spencer and Jeremiah’s comic attempts to remove Cliff from the pole in the reward challenge showed just how strong he can be in the right situation. He’s also a likable guy who’s charmed both Woo and Lindsey into star-struck fans. They didn’t even consider the idea that Tony would flip on their friendly hero. Cliff may be a physical threat after the merge, yet the individual challenges often require balance over strength. Cliff’s far too large to spend much time hanging on a pole; we saw what happened to John Cody in that situation. That’s what makes the move to take him out a bit murkier. Cliff provides a perfect shield that’s going to receive attention once the merge happens. He has strong allies, but the Beauty and Brains members could easily create a numbers advantage against him. Why take down a shield this early?

Tony’s choice likely involved his place within the former Brawn tribe. He was number four behind Cliff, Lindsey, and Woo. Stephen Fishbach aptly described him as an “agent of chaos”, and that’s one possible reason for the move. Tony wants to be calling the shots and controlling his destiny, and it’s a bonus to watch others scramble to keep up with him. If the new Solana tribe goes to Tribal Council next week, they have four votes and can easily pick off Lindsey or Woo. In fact, it might not be the worst thing for Tony if they lose again. There’s a good chance a former Beauty player goes home if Aparri loses (more on that later), and he loses a potential ally that could join with LJ and Jeffra. Tony’s banking on the fact that his new allies won’t flip on him once they’re reunited after the merge, and that’s quite a gamble.

Acting out of Emotion

The other key figure in Cliff’s departure was Trish, who was giddy at the thought of betraying him. She blatantly cozied up to LJ and had no qualms about changing the game. Unlike Tony, there was little doubt that Trish was going to vote against her former tribe mates. She was willing to throw the challenge last week and has clashed with Lindsey since the start. While Cliff’s comment that she’s playing with emotion seems condescending, it’s easy to see what drives it. At this point in the game, Trish does not seem like a good Survivor player. Her strategy is out in the open, and she’s acting on personal beefs more than what benefits her in the game. On the other hand, she’s actually in a decent position to last for a while.

An interesting alternate plan would have been for Cliff to approach LJ and Jeffra to propose voting out Trish. This would ensure their survival and remove a rival with no interest in working with them. That move also would create a new coalition that could help with the post-merge game. It would effectively neutralize Tony, who Cliff believed was not a fully committed ally before the vote. While it’s easy to propose this move in hindsight, removing an untrustworthy ally in this way has worked in past seasons. Instead of putting your game in the hands of a shaky player, why not just remove them? LJ seems rational and was most focused on not having to play his idol. This strategy removes that necessity.

The Risk of the Idol


No idol in play.

The other remarkable moment this week was watching LJ not play his idol despite the dangers of the numbers disadvantage. I nearly woke up the baby yelling at the screen for him to play it. Despite Cliff being voted out, LJ’s choice felt unnecessarily risky. Why take a chance? There’s no Redemption Island as a safety net. Too many players have gone home with an immunity idol in their bag (or back at camp). While keeping the idol gives LJ a trump card for later in the game, it also puts a lot of trust on new allies. His guts paid off and could help down the road, but he was still playing with fire.

This vote also revealed the challenges for LJ that should only increase after the merge. There’s a huge target on his back, and removing it will be very difficult. Even former allies like Jeremiah may not be ready to join forces, so putting together a strong alliance probably won’t happen. Tony has proven that he won’t stay loyal, so LJ will need good strategy and a lot of luck to survive the game’s second act. He’s a likable guy who appears to understand the game, but this new advantage won’t last forever. Winning a few immunity challenges down the road may be needed to get him beyond the post-merge chaos.

It’s Great to Be a Brain

The episode opened with Kass and Tasha describing their last-minute change at Tribal Council. This confirms that they were ready to vote out Spencer, which would not have been wise. When Jeff announced the tribe swap, both don’t look so thrilled about keeping the stronger guy. You can’t win Survivor without some luck, and fate shined kindly on the Brains. All three of them ended up on the same tribe, which is pretty remarkable. They share the majority with three former Beauty members on Aparri, and Sarah was the lone wolf. That’s the theory, at least. Watching a more dominant tribe immediately turn on itself brings credence to Josh Wigler’s idea of the “Intentional Matsing”. The Beauty tribe didn’t get a chance to solve its rifts before the swap, and all the trio has to do is watch the madness ensue.

The looks on the faces of Tasha, Kass, and Spencer were priceless as each former Beauty player threw the other under the bus. Alexis revealed everything about the tribe and was particularly nasty to Morgan, and Morgan did the same thing against her tribe mates. Jeremiah completed the trifecta by throwing both of the women to the wolves. It’s stunning to watch them all scramble to save themselves. An easier move would be to focus on Sarah and try to pick her up as the fourth vote. That scenario may have happened if Jeffra was in the group instead of Morgan. She’s divisive enough to push Alexis and Jeremiah to work against their best interests. Morgan also faced the music with her initial choice to search for the idol was revealed. Of course, the possibility being revealed may not be a terrible thing. If the Brains are choosing which person to remove, the chance of Morgan playing the idol could push them towards a safer pick.

Sarah’s a forgotten player and may occupy a better position than anyone. If they go to Tribal Council next week, someone from the Beauty tribe seems certain to exit. If the merge comes in the following week, will the Brains actually get targeted? This swap has resulted in the best possible scenario for a group that was struggling mightily in the game just last week. The choice to keep Spencer was also confirmed in the immunity challenge, where smart play from him and Jeremiah gave them the edge. The former Brains worked together well (despite some unnecessary ribbing from Jeff) and blew through the puzzle for the surprise victory. Their confidence has returned and could make them a force going forward.

The merge frequently happens at 12, so we may have just one more Tribal Council before it happens. That makes it tricky to decide who’s in the best and worst positions. The glimpses from the previews also could play a pivotal role in shaking up the game, but they aren’t conclusive enough to affect this assessment. These choices assume that we’ll have at least one more vote with the current tribes and reflect the positions of each player within those groups for that Tribal Council.

Who’s in the best position?

Aparri – Sarah:

Getting played like the train section at Toys ‘R Us.

Can she make bonds with the Brains?

When the new tribes were revealed before the reward challenge, Sarah appeared to have the worst position. Her allies were gone and she was an obvious early target. At best, she was a swing vote that would pick which group moved forward. The surprise was that she may not even have to choose. The willingness of the former Beauty members to split made her spot more valuable. Sarah’s in a similar position to Denise in the Philippines and just needs to avoid pulling the target in her direction. Barring an unforeseen development, she should have a cakewalk to the merge. The question is whether she can make bonds with the three Brains that could serve her well down the road. If she can strike up an allegiance with at least one of them, it could give Sarah a shot at making it all the way to the end.

Solana – Tony:

Despite the questions about the long-term benefits of his vote, Tony sits in a great spot in the current Solana tribe. Trish is a reliable ally, and her adoration of LJ should maintain that bond. Tony has removed doubt that he’ll go home next, and he has the idol as an extra precaution. He’s still in a dicey situation that could come back to haunt him, but the target shouldn’t arrive until some other threats are gone. Once the merge hits, he must reunite with Sarah and hope to connect with some of the Brains to maintain his edge.

Who’s in trouble?

Aparri – Jeremiah:


Needs to be removed before reconnecting with LJ and Jeffra.

There are three candidates for this spot, and you can make a case for each of them. Morgan lied about the idol and doesn’t seem trustworthy, and Alexis over plays her push to turn on her tribe. All things being equal, I expect that Jeremiah would go first because of a larger target. He’s proven himself in challenges, including this week’s battle for immunity. He may struggle with the strategic game, but there’s still a chance he could make waves in the future. Regardless of who goes home, the key move is removing an ally that could re-connect with LJ and Jeffra on the other side.

Solona – Lindsey:

The biggest loser of this week’s result (besides Cliff) was Lindsey, who’d built a strong alliance with the former NBA player. Woo could still find a way to re-connect with Sarah despite not throwing the challenge. Lindsey is the odd person out on Aparri and has to hope they win the next challenge. Her conflict with Trish also puts a greater target on her back. Tony may want to remove Woo because he’s a challenge threat, but he doesn’t want to lose Trish as an ally. I expect he would cave and allow Trish to finally get her wish to take out Lindsey. Will any of this even get a chance to happen? We’ll see.

This season is working because it’s difficult to predict what this cast will do. I’ve been blindsided by almost every Tribal Council, and even the erratic play has been interesting. This is an entertaining group that mostly has a basic understanding of how the show works. It doesn’t mean they act rationally, but that’s what provides much of the entertainment. We also have a rare case where a tribe swap has created two solid groups. This wasn’t the case with uneven switch-ups in One World and the Caramoan, and both of them led to dull episodes. There’s plenty to like this time, and I expect that to continue next week. The fireworks should only increase after the merge. Who knows who will come out on top?

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