Stephen Fishbach was the runner-up on Survivor: Tocantins and a member of the jury on Survivor Cambodia: Second Chance. He has been blogging about Survivor strategy for PEOPLE since 2009. Follow him on Twitter @stephenfishbach.
“This game is all about timing.” –John Cochran, Survivor: Caramoan
Oh Zeke. Your withering critiques of your tribe and the Millennial hookup culture are the funniest moments of every episode. I love the fact that you’re a challenge beast with a porn ‘stache and a Hawaiian shirt. You made me teary-eyed when you said at Tribal Council that “I feel like I’m the best version of myself out here, because I want to give all of myself.”
But don’t you know the first rule of Survivor is never, ever tell the other alliance your plans?
And I get it. We’re watching a television show, you’re living the adventure. Maybe you’re closer to Jay than we can tell from 44 minutes of tightly edited TV. In Survivor the show, everything becomes so binary: “It’s this group versus that group.” In Survivor the real-life game, the battle lines are never so finely drawn.
But surely you’ve seen Jay, Taylor and Figgy cackling on the beach about the triforce. You must have heard Jay call Taylor “My dude.”
We all know how meaningful it is to be someone’s dude.
When Zeke told Jay the scheme to vote off Figgy, it set in motion a chain of Survivor telephone. Jay told Michelle who told Michaela, and suddenly it was Mari getting snuffed.
The Fishy this week has to go to Michelle, who flipped the vote to save her ally. Jay had been resigned to losing Ms. Cuddleshack. But what particularly impressed me was the way that Michelle and Jay appealed to each person so precisely.
Against Michaela, they used fear. Jay told her that Zeke was coming for her next. She would have to stay with the “cool kids” for safety.
Against Will, Michelle used reason. Mari is “a strategic player and is really strong,” she said. “Figgy is an easy vote later.”
And with Hannah, Michelle used … faith? In her best move of the episode, Michelle applied truly last-minute pressure at tribal council. When Hannah asked why, Michelle responded, “Just trust me.”
Survivor strategy at its core is very simple. Get more people to vote your way than the other way. The challenge is knowing how to convince people – which appeals will move which players. Even at her first tribal council, Michelle’s a master.
Timing Is Everything
Part of the strength of Michelle’s plan comes down to one little-discussed facet of Survivor strategy. Often the plan that gets put into action at Tribal Council isn’t necessarily the best play, but the last play. Schemes evolve so quickly throughout the day that people will often sign on to whatever the latest plan is in front of them, merely not to get left out.
Certainly, that was Hannah’s calculus. She didn’t want to get left out of the latest plan.
It can actually make strategic sense to wait to pitch your idea, knowing that a dozen different schemes will be proposed and discarded before the tribe settles on one. By truly waiting until the last possible seconds, Michelle may have pushed Survivor strategy a step forward.
A Fishy for Jeff
Jeff Probst also gets a Fishy for the masterful way he managed the chaotic Tribal Council.
At first, as Michelle and Hannah frantically whispered, he let them talk without calling them out. Instead, he asked Hannah an unrelated question. “Who did you notice instantly bonding?”
This was a classic example of why Jeff is the best host in television. Basically, he was challenging Hannah. You can keep secretly chatting with Michelle, but you’re going to have to cover for yourself. Hannah brought up Taylor and Figgy, and Jeff let the tribal discussion move on.
Jeff never mentioned the secret conversation until Figgy brought it up. When Michaela accused Figgy of “playing dumb,” Figgy said, “I was listening to a conversation.” At that point, Jeff had to acknowledge what was happening, and he immediately asked Jay what was up.
When both Jay and Hannah deflected, and nobody else followed up, Jeff let the discussion drift back to Taylor and Figgy’s relationship. But just before the vote, he called it out one more time – giving the Millennials one last chance to interrogate their tribemates – which Mari, fatefully, shut down.
The tension of this moment was so palpable, as the entire Millennial tribe engaged in a standard tribal discussion, while the real power play was happening in the corner. And at the center you had Jeff, managing the Survivor circus like an expert ringmaster, never letting the contestants off the hook, but also giving them the power to decide the fate of their own games.
Survivor: Millennials vs. Gen X airs Wednesdays (8 p.m. ET) on CBS.