Breaking Down a Crucial 'Survivor' Question: 'When Is the Right Time to Turn on Your Alliance?'

Survivor airs Wednesdays (8 p.m. ET) on CBS

Photo: Robert Voets/CBS via Getty (2)

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.

Erik Reichenbach is a former two time Survivor Fan/Favorite and Comic Book Artist. Follow him on Twitter: @ErikReichenb4ch.

“Does it hurt to get betrayed? Yeah, of course it does. Why? Because you were being kept out of the secret. There were secrets being talked about behind your back. And the thing that you trusted wasn’t true.” — Jonathan Penner, Survivor: The Philippines

When is the right time to turn on your alliance?

It’s a crucial question of Survivor strategy. Big alliances are great at the merge for controlling a few votes, but only three people sit at the end. If you want to be one of them, you have to betray your allies before they betray you.

In this week’s double episode, Lauren Rimmer decides the final nine is the perfect time to make her move. After playing a low-key game all season, she uses a reward of cheeseburgers and beer to bring together Ben, Ashley and Devon.

“This seven’s not going to last forever. And if you’re stupid enough to think it’s going to last, then something’s wrong,” she says. “To me it’s the perfect time to beat ‘em to the punch, and break up the numbers before it comes breaking up on us.”

It can be dangerous for an alliance to turn on itself before the players have eliminated their opponents. So often, once an alliance has broken trust, it’s impossible to reestablish it. Players settle their internal scores while their actual enemies lie back and laugh. See how eagerly Ashley proposes voting out Ben? It would be so simple to get caught up in the fun of Big Movez and let Joe and Dr. Mike slip into the finals.

But Lauren makes a few great decisions that set her play apart. First, she waits until her sub-alliance has enough numbers to control all the votes going forward, with four members plus her extra vote. Second, she chooses the people in the tribe who are the most obsessed with loyalty. Ben’s been banging the “we have to stick together” gong all season, and Devon is still deeply betrayed by a misplaced word from Ryan.

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Notice how quick both Ben and Devon are to seek out symbolic moments to reinforce their new alliance’s bond.

“Can we solidify this right now?” Devon asks. “Over a beer,” Ben says, and they clink bottles. If you think beer in the real world can lead to some heartfelt teary moments, imagine the impact a little alcohol has when you haven’t eaten for a month, and you’ve lost half your body mass. It’s easy to get weepy and sincere.

Then, after the group gets letters from home, Devon adds, “This bonded us more than the beer. That was already bonding, but I’m not walking away from this.” It can be challenging to affirm that a new alliance is “really real” until you’ve voted together. By underlining the symbolism of the moment, Devon is actively working to lay a solid foundation for the alliance.

Lauren gets a Fishy for making the right move, at the right time, with the right people. It used to be that the final seven was considered the ideal time for a group of four to come together to take out a group of three. But because that was such an obvious breaking point, people realized they needed to start early. So – the final eight. But in Survivor: Cagayan, Tony blindsided LJ at the final nine – speeding up the course of the game forever.

One quibble. It’s a mistake for the alliance not to vote out Ryan and flush his idol in the first tribal council. Yes, it ends up working out okay – Ben’s undercover operative plans goes perfectly, and Ryan plays his idol when the group pivots to vote off Joe. But in this blog, we try to avoid results-oriented thinking, and that idol could have caused their group a lot of trouble.

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Secret Agent Man

Because this was a jam-packed double episode, this is also a Fishy-packed blog. Devon and Ben also get Fishies for the “Secret Agent Ben” plan – Ben for his immersive method acting, and Devon for coming up with the idea.

Devon’s plan to have Ben vote with Ryan and Chrissy and therefore remain a spy is brilliant. In fact, in some ways it’s surprising that this doesn’t happen more. The biggest reason is that it can be dangerous to fudge a vote when you’re making a big move. One misplaced parchment, and your whole alliance is scuttled.

But the other reason is that if you propose yourself as a double agent, your allies are inclined to wonder if you are a double agent. Nobody wants to commit themselves to a path of betrayal while you work both sides of the aisle.

A lot of the genius of Devon’s plan is that he suggests Ben play the mole. Not only does Devon inoculate himself from criticism of double-dealing, but he opens Ben – probably his biggest threat right now – up to those exact same suspicions.

Indeed, the contestants are so impressed with Ben’s acting job that they start to think they should eliminate him! That would be a disastrous decision at this point for the four. It could give a potential opportunity to Joe, Mike, Chrissy and Ryan to flip the game again. So kudos again to Devon for showing restraint.

The big question is, will Chrissy and Ryan feel more betrayed by Ben when they learn that he was only pretending to be on their side? I certainly would – I mean, how do you ever trust someone again after a performance like that?

On the other hand, playing double-agent meant that Ben wasn’t part of the smug gloatfest after the JP blindside.

Ben’s got an idol in his pocket that nobody knows about, and a belly full of both cheeseburgers and peanut butter. If he can finesse his reveal to Chrissy and Ryan, he could wind up in the best position in the game.

Survivor airs Wednesdays (8 p.m. ET) on CBS.

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