Survivor: San Juan Del Sur

The Survivor Strategic Game: The Cult of Big Moves


In our current Survivor era, one constant message has promoted the idea that you have to make big moves to win the game. Coasting along with an alliance and choosing the right allies is dismissed as the easy route. Who would give that person the million? In fact, it’s a pretty common trend. Cochran won that way in the Caramoan, and Denise and Sophie followed a similar path. Tyson led the charge to remove Aras in the first Blood vs. Water season, but he mostly stuck to the plan and kept it simple. The obvious recent exception is Tony, but even he followed the herd when it suited him. Tony also had the benefit of the very powerful Tyler Perry idol in case his ambitious plans went awry. The most important element is timing, and doing something grand achieves little if it comes at the wrong time.

So why is everyone obsessed with big moves? The main reason is Jeff Probst, who talks constantly within and outside the show about the need to take chances. His obsession makes sense; big moves lead to good television. When a player does something daring, it leads to classic moments that we remember for years. The Three Amigos’ plan to oust Phillip with two hidden immunity idols was awesome. Unfortunately, it also didn’t work like they hoped and led to their demise. Malcolm was out next, and Reynold and Eddie followed later. Fans love this type of moment, despite the questionable game play. A note to future players: Jeff Probst is not your friend. He wants you to go crazy and deliver entertaining TV.

It’s also important to look at which players are labeled as the show’s greatest. Russell Hantz strutted into both final Tribal Councils like he owned the place. He took charge and bulldozed his way to the end. The problem is that he also played a bad game, especially in Heroes vs. Villains. He played idols at the wrong time and removed an ally in Danielle for no reason. Despite his losses, Russell inaugurated the cult of the big move. Boston Rob gets connected to this trend, but he actually played a simple game on Redemption Island. That season was dull because he didn’t take unnecessary chances. After playing three times, Boston Rob understood that small moves and preemptive strikes were more important than flashy grandstanding for the other players.

This brings me to Val, who faced an uphill battle in her tribe for several reasons. A five-person alliance of guys was running the show, and Baylor had joined up with them. The numbers were stacked against her, and Val didn’t have the personal relationships because of her time on Exile Island. Even so, there were opportunities to avoid the vote. John Rocker had connected with her husband while on Exile, and working with John could have at least bought her another three days in the game. She could even join him on a vigilant search for the hidden immunity idol. Her fate wasn’t sealed when Coyopa lost the challenge. Instead, Val went for the “big move” and delivered one of the stranger lies in the show’s history.

Selling the Myth of Two Idols

Val's attempt at a big move used some odd logic. Val’s attempt at a big move used some odd logic.[/caption]

Using the story of the idol to save her spot wasn’t a terrible idea for Val. She’d been to Exile Island and seen the clue, so it wouldn’t be hard to sell the fact that she had it. In that case, the move would be to push the alliance indirectly to vote for Jaclyn instead. They’d likely split the votes 3-3 between the two women. If Val decided to vote for Jaclyn and sold a story to avoid Jaclyn doing the same thing, she’d be in good shape. This is a little complicated, but it’s nothing compared to telling people you have two immunity idols. How would that be possible? Tony had a pair last season, but they didn’t both appear in the first week. Val calls it a big move, but this is just a silly idea. Who would buy that story?

Amazingly, Val’s fellow Coyopa members seemed willing to take the bait. Is a move still dumb if you’re on a tribe without deep thinkers? Unfortunately, the fact that Val wasn’t in a group of strategists doesn’t help her case. In fact, it shows that it wouldn’t have taken that much to change their minds. John Rocker found an immunity idol and still believed that Val had two more. It’s becoming obvious that many players haven’t seen much of the show. The producers love putting idols in play, but even they know that three in one tribe is too much (I hope). John’s comments when he voted the second time indicate that he expected Val to play the idol and was doing her a favor by revealing the split votes for Baylor. It’s such an odd approach to the game from nearly everyone involved.

To give Val a little credit, she recognized the opportunity to survive after learning of the split vote. Val tried to make the best of a bad situation, but her margin of error was thin. If it wasn’t for Josh’s recognition that something was amiss, Baylor would have been gone. Given the numbers difference, a 4-2 split vote makes sense regardless. If there’s no idol, it leads to a tie and nullifies the chance for something to fall apart. Once the votes were deadlocked at 4-4 and Val showed that the idol talk was a ruse, it was all over. Even if Val had played the idol, I don’t get the impression the guys would have cared that much if Baylor had left. That’s why this split vote isn’t as troublesome as some attempts. No matter what happened with the idol, they still had a big numbers advantage.

The Saga of John Rocker

John found an idol, but his secret is out on his tribe.

John found an idol, but his secret is out on his tribe.

When the producers cast John Rocker, they certainly hoped for this type of episode. First of all, he strutted into the reward challenge and subsequently lost badly to Julie. The Redemption Island-type challenges aren’t designed for big dudes. There’s a reason that players like Hayden and Brad Culpepper failed to master them. This challenge was ill-suited to John’s size, which makes his choice to do it a little baffling. I expect that he didn’t consider what was involved and figured his athleticism would outshine Julie in anything. What made it worse was his grade-school reply about being embarrassed by losing to a girl. While it’s funny in one sense, it also diminishes Julie’s accomplishment from the one person who should support her. She took a deliberate approach and killed the challenge, and I’m curious if we’re sleeping on Julie as a possible threat to go far in the game.

The danger for Julie will come next week because Jeremy could want revenge against John. Being connected with such a volatile player could make it tricky for Julie if they go to Tribal Council. John did try to save Val, and he may have been willing to do more if she gave him a chance. Her inattention did allow him to find the idol thanks to a very easy clue. It will be interesting to see how John uses the idol if the nastiness starts growing towards him. He essentially headbutted Jon in the immunity challenge and took losing badly once again. While there’s no shame in losing to a younger guy who played football for Michigan State, I expect John didn’t see it that way.

Where does John go from here? The fact that he believed Val’s lie about the two idols (while holding one himself) is a huge red flag. Josh may be the only player really strategizing on Coyopa, and his tactics have been questionable. Despite the incoming hatred from Jeremy and others, John could hang in there because of his alliance and the idol. He’s going to continue to make waves, and that conflict should eventually lead to his demise. Even so, the next victims at Coyopa are probably Jaclyn and Baylor. It would take a lot more ugly behavior to turn the tables on a guy who’s also good in the challenges. If anyone can overcome these benefits and get himself voted out prematurely, John may be that guy.

More Questionable Strategies

Josh told Baylor about his vote, but he didn't get the reaction he hoped.

Josh told Baylor about his vote, but he didn’t get the reaction he hoped.

Josh’s random vote for Baylor introduced so many questions last week about his motivations. This episode began with a quick explanation for why he threw the vote. Thanks, editors! Josh explained that he wanted to keep the others from noticing their alliance. His logic makes sense in theory, but it also overcomplicates the situation. If he voted for Nadiya, it just proved that Baylor and Josh were both loyal to the guys. It would not give away their close alliance. What Josh really accomplished was to raise suspicions from Baylor about their bond. He didn’t notify her in advance, so it made her wonder if he was trustworthy. No matter how much it made sense in Josh’s mind, this was a bad game move. Keeping things simple is essential in the early going. People want to work with someone they can trust.

Another interesting moment came after Hunahpu realized they’d lost the flint. Jon stands up and admits that he probably lost it. While I admire his candor and think he’s a stand-up guy, this is probably not a wise move. Jon plays it off well by making a wonderful J’Tia reference, but he’s lucky they didn’t go to Tribal Council this week. It’s doubtful the flint would have cost him the game, but why take that chance? It’s still so early, and there are no obvious rifts in the tribe. Drew seems like the obvious first boot on Hunahpu, but Jon doesn’t appear to have too many allies either. The first rule of Survivor’s early stage: don’t give people an obvious reason to vote you out of the game.

Considering this cast in general, they seem especially innocent about strategy. This may relate to the Blood vs. Water concept, which focuses more on emotions than chess moves. That also could have played a role in the way this season was cast. I have to remember that Cagayan didn’t open up with brilliant strategy. My first blog post last season was titled “Check Your Brains at the Door”. David and Garrett were hardly brilliant players, but I’m getting a different vibe this time. I guess there is a benefit to watching people make strange moves. It gives me plenty of fodder for analyzing their odd choices.

Unlocking the Hunahpu Mystery

The reward challenge gave Probst an opportunity to do his favorite thing: berate the players for being stupid. It was obvious when they offered the beans for flint that it wouldn’t work. I don’t blame them for trying. Beyond Probst’s comically stern lecture, the discussion revealed some interesting facets of tribe dynamics. Drew and Jon were the only ones pushing to keep the fishing gear. The others easily overruled them, and it supports the idea that Jeremy and the women are running the team. Reed’s place is unclear. He was their spokesperson in offering the trade, and he’s been the rock/paper/scissors participant. It makes me wonder if he’s grabbed the leadership spot. We also witnessed him entertaining the others with his crazy flexibility. Despite not having a recognizable alliance, Reed appears to have a firm spot in the tribe for the time being.

It's hard to really know what's happening at Hunahpu.

It’s hard to know what’s happening at Hunahpu.

We’ve spent a limited time on Hunahpu thus far, so evidence must come from the challenges. A big moment happened when Natalie realized that her sister was gone. It’s clear that she couldn’t envision a scenario where Nadiya left first. Her devastated reaction was real, but it also helped her standing among her tribe mates. Missy said “I wanna help her,” and I expect that connection to support Natalie’s game. She’s already made an alliance with Jeremy, and building that emotional bond with others is important. Since Hunahpu hasn’t gone to Tribal Council, it’s really all speculation at this point. They’ve won every challenge, but I expect it’s only a matter of time before the tables turn on them.

Who’s in the best position?

Jeremy remains in a great spot despite Val's exit.

Jeremy remains in a great spot despite Val’s exit.

Jeremy: This group remains unchanged from last week, and everyone solidified their spot in the second episode. Losing Val makes Jeremy less of a long-term threat and should help him avoid the target for a while. He also did a good job in showing the idol clue to John at Exile Island. There are few reasons not to try and help someone on the other tribe at this stage. Jeremy tried to help his wife by working with John, and he made a possible ally for down the road. Those chances are less likely because he’ll be angry about losing Val. Even so, he could win a lot of points with John by trying to work with him if they both make the merge. Jeremy has a firm place in the tribe, and he’s in the best spot.

Natalie: Although she faced a low point after Nadiya’s departure, Natalie won respect after breaking down about the loss. People can sense when emotions are genuine, and it’s hard not to feel for her. Natalie showed her challenge skills after taking out a determined Val in the duel, and she’s part of the main alliance on her tribe. She also has another way to connect with Jeremy now that his wife has left. The arrow is pointing way up for Natalie, who has a clear path to at least the middle of the game.

John: This may seem like a weird inclusion since his troubling history is now known. The previews also show more controversy for John next time. Even so, he’s still in a good spot for the near future. The dominant alliance on Coyopu stuck together, and John found a hidden immunity idol. There’s also a chance that players will want to keep him around as a goat for the end. It seems unwise to think that far ahead, but Jeremy gave that opinion as a reason to connect with John on Exile Island. A number of factors remain in his favor, though too much conflict might swing the needle in the other direction.

Who’s in trouble?

Jaclyn's on the wrong side of the numbers.

Jaclyn’s on the wrong side of the numbers.

Jaclyn: I haven’t seen anything from Jaclyn that shows her inability to connect with other players. She lost the final duel against Kelley but proved her strength in their first contest. Jaclyn seems like a nice person, but she just lost her only remaining ally. What she needs is more time to form new bonds with some of the guys. A challenge win for Coyopa would go a long way to keeping her around. If they go to Tribal Council again, she must hope that another player tries to do something crazy. Josh could be that guy, but I get the impression he’ll bide his time for a few more votes before trying to strike.

Baylor: If anyone could take Jaclyn’s place as the next target on Coyopa, Baylor is the most likely candidate. She’s at the bottom of the alliance, and losing her would not affect the guys’ numbers advantage. Only Josh seems determined to keep her around, and that may not be enough. Baylor had an interesting moment in the challenge after Missy busted her lip. She was clearly shattered by the experience, and that makes me wonder if she’s tough enough for the game. Baylor is really young, and it takes nerves of steel to deal with some of the challenges of Survivor. There’s a chance that her bond with Josh could lead them far into the game, but the next few weeks are dangerous.

Drew: We’ve seen young guys who seem to live on another planet on this show, and Drew is one of the standouts from that group. The editing keeps focusing on how no one likes him, and that’s a really bad sign for Drew’s chances. A possible saving grace is his use in challenges, but that only goes so far against a majority alliance. The big question is whether Drew realizes that he’s out of the loop. Once Hunahpu loses a challenge, we’ll find out where everyone stands. Thus far, Drew is destined for blindside time.

Me: I started making predictions for a different site with the One World season, and I’ve never come close to choosing the winner. Even so, my pick of Val was easily the worst one. I wasn’t as confident about it after last week, but I didn’t expect the strange moves like claiming to have two idols. My new unofficial pick is Kelley, since Jeremy or Reed would be too obvious. It’s hard to claim any expertise in strategy with repeated bad picks, so I fear for Kelley’s chances. Maybe this time my luck will change.

It’s been an eventful two weeks, and it’s so hard to know who’s really in the best spot. One reason is how little knowledge we have about Hunaphu. They’ve eked out two immunity challenges, so the difference between the tribes isn’t huge. You can’t put too much stock in the individual reward challenges. Probst may talk about how divided Coyopa is, but that isn’t really true. The guys are running the show, and that’s unlikely to change at the next vote. I like a lot of the Hunaphu players, but I’m hoping they go to Tribal Council to learn more about their strategy. It also might help them to avoid a Tandang-style meltdown after the merge. Despite some questionable moves, there’s a lot of potential for another great season. It isn’t there yet, but I’m still enjoying the ride.

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