Survivor San Juan Del Sur

The Survivor Strategic Game: Visualizing the Win


There’s a telling moment in the lead-up to Tribal Council this week that hinted at why Jon didn’t see the votes coming his way. Jaclyn spoke about how he concentrated on visualizing the win, and that approach probably goes back to his days playing college football. It’s an effective strategy in sports to have so much confidence about winning that you don’t waste time worrying about losing. This strategy leads to bold, daring plays that work because they’re executed confidently. The problem is that Survivor is a different kind of game. Believing that you’re going to win isn’t enough when power rests in others’ hands. Once Jon’s vase fell in the immunity challenge, his safest move was playing the idol and taking his best shot in the final five. He certainly had some doubts based on conversations with Jaclyn. Setting those aside and trusting others was too risky at this late stage of the game.

The editors had a field day showing all the ways that Jon misread the situation. They had been setting up this blindside for several weeks in Aras-like fashion, so it’s hardly a shock to the audience. Even so, there was satisfaction in watching the failure of a guy ready to give his jury speech at the final six. It felt so obvious that I wondered if the editing was setting up a surprise exit for Natalie. Once she survived the immunity challenge, it was clear that Jon was finished. It’s possible the challenge showdown between Jon and Natalie will decide the season. The winner could play their idol at the final five, so a victory would guarantee a one-in-four shot at the million. That’s a pretty big swing from being voted out at the next Tribal Council. I’m not a fan of challenges that rely so much on wind, but I’ll admit to loving the drama with this moment. Jon probably has nightmares about that challenge and how close he came to survival.

Jon wasn't really a villain, but he was the best option left in the game. Jon wasn’t really a villain, but he was the best option left for the editors.[/caption]

A challenge from this cast is the lack of an antagonist that could deliver great television. There’s been no huge drama at Ponderosa, and the season’s biggest fight was between Jon and Jaclyn. This forced the editors to create a villain with Jon. His biggest sin is being dorky about wine and dim-witted about the game. He’s flipped on alliances and burned bridges, but that’s pretty common. What makes Jon the right candidate for a villain’s edit? Jaclyn has hinted that things come too easy for Jon, so he’ll never fall into the underdog role. He can be arrogant, but a lot of chips fell his way during the game. He didn’t face much adversity and wasn’t threatened until he implemented Jeremy’s exit. If there’s a flaw in his game, it was making that move against a powerful ally. Jon became Natalie’s prime target and didn’t have a shield to hide behind. He was the front runner and played like one, but that’s rarely a good idea on Survivor. It’s best to play from the middle of the majority and find the right opportunity to strike at the leader.

Occam’s Razor

When Natalie switched her vote from Keith to Alec last week, the confused reactions from Missy and Jon suggested there would be hell to pay back at camp. It was amazing to watch them accept Natalie’s explanation so easily. Jaclyn even considered the idea that Alec voted for himself. Jon and Jaclyn aren’t brilliant strategists, but there is some logic to the way they responded. There’s a famous scientific principle called Occam’s razor that’s used for making predictions. It states that when you have two competing theories with the same predictions, the simpler one is better. Natalie’s approach incorporated a variation of that principle. Her simple explanation about screwing up the vote made sense. In the chaos leading to Tribal Council, it was possible (in Jon’s mind) that she misunderstood the split vote.

Natalie sold her "mistake" to Jon and Jaclyn and grabbed control.

Natalie sold her “mistake” to Jon and Jaclyn and grabbed control.

Jon and Jaclyn were faced with choosing between two competing theories. The simpler one was that Natalie had inadvertently sent Alec packing with the wrong vote. The more complicated option involved a multi-step plan from Natalie that did not appear logical on the surface. Why keep a guy like Keith who can win challenges and hurt the alliance? Alec was no real threat, so he was a perfect choice to retain. What this assumption missed was Natalie’s determination to win. It cast her as a secondary player in Jon’s winning narrative that he’s visualized. Viewers know that Natalie wanted Jon out last week and has planned his exit since Jeremy left the game. She brought Jon on a reward and even volunteered for Exile Island this week. Natalie brilliantly kept her intentions hidden, and that approach helped her to sell the explanation. A less trustworthy player like Reed could never have sold this type of deception.

It’s interesting to note Jon’s limited take on why Natalie shouldn’t want Keith around. What he didn’t consider was her reasons for removing Alec. While he posed no threat to win the game, Alec’s connections to Baylor (and Jon, according to his exit interview) could hurt Natalie down the road. She was thinking steps ahead and trying to set up the game in her favor. This failure of imagination helped to seal Jon’s fate and may have doomed Jaclyn’s chances. The best Survivor players consider their opponents’ best moves and don’t assume their allies have their back. The goal is to remove the better options and keep that person thinking they’re in charge. Natalie didn’t have to worry about a loved one and could remain focused on her own game. This gave her a major advantage over the pairs, especially Jon and Jaclyn.

An Unbreakable Deal

The challenge in voting out Jon was avoiding the tie and the idol, and the key figure in both tactics was Missy. Keith would vote however Natalie told him, and Baylor was on board with removing Jon. Convincing Missy would be another story. She bonded with Jon over religion and built a mother/son relationship with him. What’s odd about her conversation with Baylor was how adamant she was about not voting for Jon. It’s possible this conversation didn’t happen at this exact moment but was placed there by the editors to make the result less obvious. Regardless, Missy’s concern about losing votes did make sense. Of course, she might not beat Jon in the end, so removing him was necessary.

It wasn't an easy sell, but Baylor convinced her mom to take out Jon.

It wasn’t an easy sell, but Baylor convinced her mom to take out Jon.

Missy was essential for the split vote plan, which set up a 2-2-2 split to ensure that either Jon or Jaclyn would go home. It’s a simple plan that Missy could easily foil with a vote for Keith. She hasn’t made a risky move yet, however. Missy has played a controlled game and ensured that she’s always had multiple allies voting on her side. Reed targeted her last week but fell to a 7-1 vote. Missy’s approach is nearly perfect for reaching the end. The question is whether she’s playing to win the game. Jon gave Missy credit at Ponderosa for engineering his exit, but he’s probably the exception. Jurors often vote for which player they like the most, and I don’t get the sense that guys like Alec and Wes like Missy. It may not be fair, but Missy’s clinical approach (when she isn’t protecting her daughter) could limit her chances.

Hobbling to the Finish

The episode’s other big story was Missy’s injury, which may be a broken ankle. Watching Baylor literally carry Missy on her back showed the severity of the injury. Medical’s decision not to pull her made sense given how close we are to the end. Also, this is different than cases where players’ lives were actually in jeopardy. Missy needed Keith’s help to access the voting booth, so it’s only getting worse. There’s still a chance that she’ll quit, though Missy was obstinate that it won’t happen. The interesting part will be her inability to compete in any challenges, barring a trivia challenge (fat chance!). Could you imagine her trying to run a giant obstacle course? Beyond her physical abilities, Missy’s injury raises interesting questions about how much it will impact the game.

If Missy makes the jury, will she sell the injury as a testament to how much she wants to win? I expect she’ll talk about her spirit and how much she fought to stay in the game. While they might respect the determination, I don’t think the jury will award her the million because of it. In fact, watching her hobble into Tribal Council could bring pity or even anger from the eliminated players. Another question is whether this injury will impact others’ interest in sitting next to Missy at the end. Natalie might have second thoughts about facing someone with a gritty story. Missy and Baylor seem like Natalie’s best choices for a final three, and I don’t believe that fact has changed. Even so, it might give someone like Jaclyn ammunition while looking for a gap to slide through the next few votes.

A Roller Coaster of Emotions

Natalie’s had a fascinating story throughout the season going back to her sister’s exit in the first episode. Few expected her to do well, and her attacks on John Rocker (while entertaining) made it seem even less likely. Since Jeremy’s exit, Natalie has become the centerpiece of the narrative. She’s played a subtle game and built trust with players without over-promising. We don’t hear Natalie telling everyone they’re in her final three. Instead, people like Jon just assumed she was a loyal ally. Few realized Natalie was playing such an individual game despite receiving plenty of hints. We saw the emotional toll of playing without her sister when Natalie went to Exile Island this week. It felt like either a hero moment or a fitting goodbye in her last episode. Once she won immunity, Natalie’s road to the end was clear.

Natalie and Keith are the most likely winners from the final five.

Natalie and Keith are the most likely winners from the final five.

Unlike Missy, Natalie is well-respected by the jury and should win their votes in most final three scenarios. The danger will come at the final four if the others recognize this fact. The difference is that Natalie has close allies in both Keith and Baylor. Her only antagonist is Jaclyn, and that shouldn’t be enough to turn the tables. I don’t expect Jaclyn to build a coalition to take out Natalie. The wild card is still Keith, who could grab the votes as the outsider who hasn’t betrayed anyone. His amazement at making it this far could play in his favor, especially if he can win challenges. Natalie probably wins against Keith, but it’s less definitive. She should be able to explain how her gameplay was better, yet that doesn’t always matter. Despite his errors, Keith is likable enough to steal the million.

Who’s the Sole Survivor?

It’s time for my fearless predictions about will happen at next week’s finale. Before you start arguing with my choices, you should remember that my original pick to win was Val. I’m not a very reliable source of knowledge when it comes to future Survivor results. Regardless, it’s fun to speculate on how it will happen. Going from fifth to first place, here are my choices for the final spots of the remaining players:

Fifth place: Jaclyn. I’m been wondering if Jaclyn could be a surprise winner for a while, and there’s still a chance. Even so, she feels like the most likely next boot from this group. Jaclyn is going to be angry about Jon’s departure and threaten to burn down the camp. She’ll probably make a few analogies to going out with guns blazing. I’m not sure that’s the wisest move to help her survival, though. Her best plan would be stressing to Missy and Baylor that Keith or Natalie would beat them in the end. If he doesn’t win immunity, Keith is the obvious target given his challenge abilities.

Fourth place: Keith. With his spitting and lack of decorum, Keith has provided great TV all season. His experience at the “Survivor-style” spa reward was so much fun. Keith is the classic outsider and very dangerous to keep around much longer. I also feel like Baylor and Missy’s stories will culminate with the final Tribal Council. Keith has shown a real knack at surviving, but I think he’ll fall just short.

Baylor has a great chance to make the end, but her odds to win aren't good.

Baylor has a great chance to make the end, but her odds to win aren’t good.

Third place: Baylor. Considering her start as an early target, Baylor has thrived and made some good decisions since the merge. She’s in a decent spot to make the end and is the least likely of the five players to become a target. On the other hand, no one considers her a threat to win the game. There’s little respect for Baylor’s game, and Missy’s protectiveness did not help. Baylor is young and unlikely to make a convincing case in front of the jury. She may get Alec’s vote, but I think that’s probably her ceiling.

Second place: Missy. It isn’t hard to make a case that Missy has played a solid game. She built strong alliances with Jeremy and Jon and switched her allegiances at the right time. If Missy could remove Keith and Natalie, she would be the favorite against Jaclyn and Baylor. On the other hand, Missy’s game has largely happened behind the scenes and isn’t flashy. She hasn’t won immunity, played idols, nor shown much energy. Missy will probably get a few votes against Natalie, but it won’t be enough to win.

Sole Survivor: Natalie. Is it too obvious? Natalie is the fan favorite and has played a strong game. She won’t fall victim to sexist titles like being a “floater” or a “follower”. Natalie made a big move this week and removed Jon. She’s guaranteed to make the final four because of her immunity idol. The most important fact is how likable she is, and that’s the key to her success. Natalie also was the underdog following the merge and can sell that story to the jury. They’ll feel good about rewarding a tough player who’s faced adversity and thrived. I really hope this prediction is rare and actually a correct pick.

This season has been inconsistent and won’t rank above the lower middle at best. Even so, I wouldn’t place it below duds like One World, Nicaragua, and Redemption Island. Jon wasn’t a strategic mastermind, but it was still interesting to watch the successful strategy. All signs point to a Natalie win, but you never know with a season this unpredictable. I wouldn’t be shocked to see a Baylor/Missy/Jaclyn final three given the surprises thus far. It isn’t the most likely scenario, but it’s always possible. The lack of an easy narrative has kept this season above the bottom tier. Will its legacy include a surprise winner?

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