By People Staff
December 26, 2009 12:00 AM
Monty Brinton/CBS(2)

“One may know how to conquer without being able to do it.” —Sun Tzu, The Art of War

Jeff Probst — you’re completely wrong. Dalton Ross, you too. Russell Hantz wasn’t robbed.

Complaining about a bitter jury is like complaining that somebody won a challenge because they’re too strong. Survivor has physical, social and strategic elements. What if Russell had been out-muscled by Brett rather than out-charmed by Natalie? Would there be the same uproar?

Bitter juries don’t start out bitter — somebody makes them that way. Natalie knew at the very beginning that she could beat Russell in a jury vote. On day nine she said, “I know I could beat Russell in the very end. A lot of other in the tribe have been rubbed the wrong way by him. So I’m just trying to … build good relationships.” That was before they had met the Galu tribe, before there even was a jury. Natalie knew that Russell’s bullying, aggressive game play would alienate the jurors; if she rode his coattails to the end, she knew she could beat him there.

I’m not saying Natalie played a better game throughout the season. Nobody can touch Russell’s strategic mastery. He invented new uses for the immunity idol and played the game harder than anybody in Survivor history. Watching the show at home, in hour-long increments, I’d like to think I would have voted for the eight-time Fishy winner along with John and Shambo.

But a highly-edited hour of TV doesn’t come close to what it means to live for 39 days in the wilderness. Even Probst, after 20 seasons, has never lived at camp, gotten drenched in two-day rain, or forged those intimate bonds. The fact that Natalie, Mick and Jaison all were counting on sitting next to Russell at the finals speaks pretty loudly: Russell was seriously alienating in a way that doesn’t come across on television.

And remember: the jury vote wasn’t some surprise twist. You know you have to win the jury to win the game. I was talking about Russell’s loss with JT, the winner of my season, and he had a good insight: “You need to make the jury feel good about voting for you.” That doesn’t mean just being a sweetheart all the time. Todd, Yul, and JT were strong strategists who backstabbed their way to victory. All of them, however, played the game with a mind to winning votes at the end.

Look, for example, at how JT finessed our move on Coach. When we blindsided the Dragonslayer, JT insisted that the only way he would agree to the move (which was essential to my strategy) was if he didn’t have to write Coach’s name down. JT knew that Coach valued loyalty above all else, so he managed to send a guaranteed jury vote to the bench. Or remember when Yul took out Jonathan Penner in Cook Islands? He let Adam think the vote was a gift for him and Candice when in fact Yul had planned the move anyway. That’s the way you have to play to win the game. You don’t just vote out the competition; you tailor every vote with a mind to who you’re playing against and how they will vote in the finals.

What that means changes with the makeup of contestants every season. One of the big challenges of Survivor is that you have to play the hand you’re dealt. You can’t count on winning immunities if you’re up against Ozzy. Or, as Natalie recognized, you can’t be a strong-willed strategist when you have Russell on your tribe. Most of all, every juror makes his or her vote based on individual criteria. In Tocantins, all of Coach’s bluster about the Warrior Way may have seemed like hot air but it fundamentally influenced the entire tenor of that final tribal council. Your job as a Survivor contestant is to discover every person’s criteria and build the relationships to earn the votes. Russell failed to do that — and as a result, he lost.

Was the jury bitter? Yes. But Russell made them bitter.

Oh? And the Final Fishy Award? Natalie, of course. For winning Survivor. — Stephen Fishbach

Tell us: Was Russell robbed?

Monty Brinton/CBS(2)