Was there anything Russell Hantz didn’t do in the 19th season of Survivor? He sabotaged camp by emptying canteens and burning socks. He originally lied and said he lost everything in Hurricane Katrina. He found three hidden immunity idols without clues and played each one in a different, effective way. He got rid of he thought were threats and had his pick of who to take with him to the final three. But in the end, there was one thing that the 37-year-old oil company entrepreneur didn’t do, and that was win the title of sole Survivor. PEOPLE talked to Russell, the Sprint Fan Favorite, and the person Jeff Probst considers “the greatest player of all time.” … – Cynthia Wang
You said at the final tribal council your chance of winning had dropped to 55 percent. Were you still that sure you had won?
It kind of shook me up. I knew I didn’t win because I can read that good. It’s like, you try so hard for something, and when you hear you didn’t win it, it’s rough. I thought maybe there’s a shot, but I started thinking and thinking about it when I was home, and analyzing everything that everybody said, and I was like, ‘I didn’t win.’ That’s why I already opened the website, russellgotscrewed.com. That’s why it’s so impressive to know that John did vote for me and Shambo did vote for me because you da man if you can get stabbed in the back, turn around, and give that person the vote. That takes a strong personality.
At first, you were the most hated contestant ever. By the finale, you were the Fan Favorite. Is that because began to understand your game play?
Everything I did out there was strategic, every single move — burning the socks, pouring out the water. Best move I made was pouring out the water and burning the socks! It’s a tough thing to do because when you do it, you can’t get caught because if you get caught, you’re going home. But I went in it with very aggressive play and I think it worked for me. I made it all the way to the end and I would never change anything about the way I played the game.
Did you have a plan in mind when you started?
You don’t know how you are going to play the game until you are out there because you have to evaluate the that are around you. So when I went out there, I’d seen that I could manipulate them, so I took control of the game the whole time, from day one. As soon as we were able to talk when we got out to the island, I said, ‘Let’s get some bamboo,’ and you see me do it four or five times. Right then, I was trying to see whom I could trust. I couldn’t trust Betsy. I couldn’t trust Marisa. I knew I could trust Ashley for a little while. I knew I could trust Natalie the whole time. The physical game is good and all, but for me, it’s a mental game and you just control . And it’s crazy how you can control so easily.
Were you a fan of Survivor before going on it?
I had never been a fan of the show. I just never really watched it! I put my application in, never thought they would call me up, but then I watched the last all-stars, where Parvati won, then I fell in love with it.
What was it like to watch yourself on TV with your wife and twin girls?
I stepped out of who I was to play this game. That’s the thing, you step out of character to play this silly game and when you are back home watching it, you’re not in the game no more, but it’s on the TV, and your kids are watching it. When I called Monica what I called Monica on national television, I looked at my little girls and their mouths were open because they’ve never heard me say a cuss word in their life, because that’s the kind of dad I am. They’ve never even seen me cry. And the thing is, this was a tough thing, for them to tell me I didn’t win sole survivor.
Could you even believe what you were seeing?
It was like lasers coming out of my eyes. I was crazy-focused. I was shocked. Watching it on TV, I was saying, ‘I am working them, baby!’ I couldn’t believe it. I said to my wife, ‘I am really good at that game!’ I know I was saying it on the show, but I was just being cocky. Now, watching it, it makes me see that I am really good at this game!
You held on to your third hidden immunity idol when you didn’t play it the last time you could. Where is it now?
Oh, it’s in my game room. It’s in my game room with a picture of me finding it and the rules for it and the idol just sitting there!
Tell us: Were you rooting for Russell? What did you think of his strategy?
Kathy Hutchins/Hutchins Photo