Monty Brinton/CBS
Steve Helling
March 21, 2015 06:15 PM

Some people know a lot about Survivor. They can spout off statistics and strategy, and they remember even the most obscure contestants from previous seasons.

Max Dawson is one of those superfans. He peppers his conversation with random factoids from the show’s 30-season run, and even taught a college-level class at Northwestern about Survivor. He’s very active in the Survivor fan community, to the point where many superfans knew who he was long before he set foot on the island. If anyone knows the ins and the outs of the game, it should be Max Dawson.

Yet competing on Survivor: Worlds Apart didn’t work out for the 37-year-old media consultant from Topanga, California. Although he was initially in a strong position in his white-collar tribe, a tribal swap put Dawson and his closest ally, Shirin Oskooi, on the wrong side of the numbers. (Their former alliance-mate, Carolyn Rivera, flipped on them.)

Dawson, who called his early elimination “humbling,” tells PEOPLE what he did wrong – but insists that he was playing to win.

OK, we need to start with the college course that you taught about Survivor. What was that about?
It was the history of reality TV told through the story of Survivor. It focused on the show’s impact on American television and pop culture. We talked about how [series creator] Mark Burnett had the foresight to think differently about TV. Reality TV is now part of our life.

Were you going to keep that under your hat? No one wants to play with someone who is such an expert.
I wasn’t going to reveal my background, but within five minutes So Kim came up to me and said, ‘I know who you are, and I know what you know.’ At that point, I couldn’t downplay my background. I had to own up to my love of the game. Tyler and Carolyn are fans of the show, and they didn’t mind talking about Survivor. So it wasn’t an issue then. It wasn’t until after the swap that it mattered.

You were with Shirin after the swap; she is definitely quirky. Could you have gone further if the two of you had been separated?
Maybe. But playing with Shirin made it so much more enjoyable. She is lovable and quirky, not off-putting to me in any way. Everyone I went to school with was like Shirin: crazy, creative, quirky and high-achieving. She’s my people. When I saw her out there, I was so happy and excited to play with her. I also thought that I could make some decisions and she could take the blame, like Cochran and Dawn [from Survivor: Caramoan].

Yes, but if you had been with Tyler, maybe Carolyn wouldn’t have flipped.
Maybe. Probably. Here’s why Carolyn flipped. I used Carolyn as a decoy to blindside Joaquin and So. Joaquin voted for Carolyn because I told him to. So when Carolyn confronted him about his vote, he said, “Max told me to.” And Carolyn got this idea that I was a master manipulator like a Jim Jones.

So it all came down to Carolyn.
Yes. I misread her completely. I thought that we had a rock solid alliance. I overestimated her. When she got a couple of votes at the beginning, I had told her that I’d draw rocks for her, and I meant it. I thought we were bonded.

Some of your quirky behavior seemed off-putting to the rest of the tribe, like skinny-dipping.
I never got the vibe that anything I was doing was causing a schism. I did get the sense that Shirin was on the outs, and I might be in trouble by associating with her.

Let me tell you what I thought as a viewer. I thought you were doing quirky things in an attempt to be memorable so you could get another shot at playing.
I didn’t go out there trying to do that. If I was guilty of anything, it was having too much fun out there. I did things that were geared towards having experiences and living out dreams, and those moments may have ultimately contributed to my demise. But that’s who I am: a passionate person. I exhibited who I really was.

So you weren’t trying to do crazy things to get on future seasons?
No! I wasn’t trying to be a professional Survivor contestant who comes back every 18 months until producers set up a season for me to win like they did for Redemption Island. I was appreciating the experience of this season.

So what was with the nakedness?
The truth is, full disclosure: I wasn’t trying to do a homage to Richard Hatch. I was trying to come up with a solution to taking a poop in the water. When the cameras rushed over to me, I went with it. It just happened in the moment. So everything that seemed hazardous and foolish, like literally exposing myself, made sense in that context.

You got stung by a stingray!
I did! I just wish I had gotten Shirin to pee on it like Kathy Vavrick Obrien did in Marquesas.

Was there part of you that was excited to be injured, just to have the real Survivor experience?
Absolutely. I got to do a lot of things. I won challenges and looked badass. I was in a terrible tribe swap. I got a buff and to vote and all that stuff. I didn’t get a chance to do everything I wanted to do, like have Jeff Probst read my name as a winner and hand me an oversized check.

As such a superfan, does your early exit sour you on the show?
Not at all. Not only do I still love the show, but I love it more. i can put faces to the aspects of the show. Camera men and women, the challenge “dream team,” the behind-the-scenes people. I love the show more now than ever before. Anything else would be ungrateful.

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