Stephen's 'Survivor' Strategy Blog: Beware That Southern Charm

Photo: Rob Kim/Landov

“The rulers who have done great things are those who have set little store by keeping their word, being skillful rather in cunningly deceiving men; they have got the better of those who relied on being trustworthy.” — Machiavelli, The Prince

Wow. Now you see why they call them All Stars. Thirty minutes in and we’d already seen broken bones, bruised egos, and blurred boobs. Tom, Russell, JT, Sandra, Cirie and Boston Rob all entered the game with their phasers set on kill, and by the end of Day 1, both camps were divided in a series of overlapping alliances. But there can be only one Fishy Award winner, and I have to give this episode’s prize to JT. Is there some favoritism here? Sure, of course. But in an episode where there was no one great strategic move, JT brilliantly used his on-screen reputation for honesty to trap his self-consciously heroic tribe. Congratulations, JT. You win the season’s first Fishy!

Until last night, nobody believed me that JT could cut throats. During the 39 days we were actually in Brazil, JT was ready to backstab our allies before I was. But when the Tocantins season aired, he came off looking like a Disney character — all aw-shucks demeanor and fighting spirit. He even took the duplicitous Stephen (er, me) to the finals with him to honor our alliance and our friendship.

But JT 2.0 — or, as I like to call him, “JT” — is willing to use that fairy tale reputation for Machiavellian purposes. “People are expecting me to be that guy they saw on Tocantins, you know, that guy who stuck by his word,” he says. “To win this game of Survivor, you have to have a dark side somewhere. I’m not looking to save my hero name. I’m here to do what I have to do to win this game.”

To that end, he schemes with Colby, makes an anti-“flower power” alliance with James that he plans on breaking, and builds trust with Tom as the tribe’s two former winners. “My strategy is to keep everyone on my side,” he says.

As the Heroes pair up and square off — Tom and Stephenie vs. Amanda, Cirie and James vs. Candice and Colby vs. Rupert and his toe — JT seems to be a part of every group. When Sugar suggests they vote out Amanda, JT nods in agreement. He then heads straight to Colby and tells him to wring Sugar’s neck like he just wrung that chicken’s. Tom makes some great points about voting out super-threat Cirie while they still have the chance, but ultimately it’s Sugar who goes home.

Meanwhile, in Camp Villain, that other Southern Charmer — Russell Hantz, Puppetmaster — is up to his old tricks. I bet the villains’ beach is already pockmarked by the holes he’s dug looking for hidden idols. Perhaps having flashbacks to Samoa, Russell immediately makes final two alliances with Parvati and Danielle. “This is when it happens — the first day. This is when it happens,” he tells Danielle. If that sounds familiar, it’s because it is almost verbatim what he said to Ashley in Samoa. “We can look back at this moment right now and say we did it from the beginning, from day one,” he had told her in Season 19.

What’s brilliant about Russell’s strategy is the way he plays to ’s expectations. Everybody knows that everybody else is out for blood. If you admit you’re willing to break your word, you paradoxically seem a lot more honest. “I will stab in the back,” he tells Danielle. “I’ll do whatever it takes to get to the top. But what I’m telling you is, I want to get to the top with you.”

Russell and JT seem to play mirror-opposite games. Russell imposes his will on those around him; JT tries to listen to his allies and work with their biases. Dueling Southerners, both with chipped teeth? In Survivor, as in Highlander, there can be only one. My money’s on my friend. — Stephen Fishbach

Tell us: Who came out of the gate swinging hardest? Who do you think has what it takes to win?

Rob Kim/Landov

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