Stephen Fishbach was the runner-up on Survivor: Tocantins and has been blogging about Survivor strategy for PEOPLE since 2009. This season, he will blog about his experiences in Cambodia as a competitor on Survivor: Second Chance. Follow Stephen on Twitter @stephenfishbach.
"I came here not to be feeling bad for other people. I came here to win a million dollars." –Abi-Maria Gomes, Survivor: Philippines
One of the best parts of being on the jury is that you’re watching Survivor happen from 10 ft. away.
We sit on the stone steps of Tribal Council and watch Jeff Probst grill the contestants. We analyze the way they evade his probing questions. We study their body language to determine who’s on the top, who’s the swing vote and who will soon be joining us for a late-night cheeseburger.
We’re like little detectives, there on the jury bench, trying to piece together what’s happened from the limited evidence we see. We have no clue who’s won reward or what drama happened back at camp until Jeff asks a question.
Jeff says offhandedly to Spencer, “So Keith picks you and Wentworth” for reward, and our brains are spinning, trying to figure out what it all means. Is it a savvy strategic move or another outbreak of #KeithNaleLogic?
Part of what makes a great Survivor contestant is the ability to tell their story to the jury, to get the jury engaged with their journey, without ever speaking a direct word to us. We are constantly judging the contestants, and we get to decide who wins the million dollars, based on any criteria we please. You can cast a vote based on strategic résumé or who has the most luxurious hair. Before I went out, Cochran gave me the great advice that the jury just wants to feel like they are still a part of the game. He told me that he would offhandedly refer to jury members by name during Tribal Council, simply to make them know their impact was still felt.
Wentworth is a standout at jury interactions. Of course, she can never say anything to us, but she’s always looking over with muggy, over-the-top reactions, involving us in her gameplay. Wentworth knows how to play the jury better than anybody, which is remarkable since she never even saw that phase of the game.
Wentworth has played a smart, cautious game all season, biding her time, building relationships and making moves only when they were urgent. When I was still in the game, we all thought Ciera was the major strategic force in the “Witches.” Staying carefully in Ciera’s shadow served Wentworth well. After all, she’s still there.
On Reward in Siem Reap, Wentworth once again showed off her cautious strategic acumen. She, Keith and Spencer were making a deal to vote together at the next Tribal Council. Keith threw out Jeremy’s name. Spencer countered with Tasha. Wentworth said – whichever. As always, Wentworth was willing to go along with any plan that advances her position one step closer to the million dollars.
But Wentworth misjudged Spencer and failed to control Abi’s vote, so all her cautious plans went awry.
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Tasha wins this week’s Fishy for convincing her allies to vote for Abi. Final seven is a famously crucial vote, and Tasha was able to pull swing vote Spencer over to her side.
All season, Tasha has worked harder than anybody to build trust. In a game of voting blocs, she has been a passionate advocate for alliances.
Even at the beginning of the game, Tasha instituted daily check-ins with her allies. That may seem like an obvious idea, but it’s actually quite rare. You would be surprised at how seldom people really sit down with their supposed allies to see where their heads are. Tasha did it every day – and part of why she turned against me at Ciera’s ouster was that I had been too sick to have our daily meet-ups.
At every Tribal Council, Tasha makes eye contact with each person who is voting with her. Her entire game is based around establishing and maintaining real relationships that can endure the vicissitudes of daily hazard.
At Tribal Council, amid all the talk of multiple “we”s and fractured voting blocs and keeping your options open, Tasha once again banged the drum for committed teamwork.
“While people are focusing on these options, they may be missing out on that window of opportunity to really lock in, because if you can get a ‘we’ that will lock in, that will be more favorable for all of the ‘we’s,” she said.
Her strategy paid off, when she pulled Jeremy, Spencer and Kimmi along into voting out Abi, giving Tasha’s “we” control of the game. Taking out Abi makes great sense for Tasha – perhaps more than anybody else. The feisty Brazilian was widely perceived as a tribal council goat, and the fear surrounding her was that, if she made it to the final five or final four, she would become an irresistible option for whomever won those last few immunities.
While Tasha dominated the challenges in her first season of Cagayan, she’s struggled this time out, and so Abi is more of a threat to her position in the final three.
The move makes less sense for Spencer, who is now one of the biggest challenge competitors and should be focused for these last few votes on removing his only real challenge rival, Keith, and jury threats like Wentworth and Jeremy.
I loved the way that Tasha and Jeremy sold the play to Spencer, arguing against keeping goats in the game for the sake of the season’s integrity. This season’s initial fan vote has motivated all the players to create a #spectacle for the fans. That has meant more than just playing as hard as we could: We also had an awareness of playing a game the fans wanted to see.
Tasha and Spencer are an interesting study in contrasts. Both players came into the game planning to establish stronger personal bonds than they did in their initial season. Tasha has focused on building ironclad bonds within her alliance, while Spencer has built personal relationships across the field. The dangers for Tasha are that those outside of her core group don’t really trust her and so are hesitant to work with her. The dangers for Spencer are that he now has to betray people who do trust him.
How do you build the “right” level of trust in Survivor? There’s no perfect strategy. Everything is so situational and probably only makes sense looking backwards, after the game has already played out.
As we head into the last episode and the final Tribal, I’m excited to cast a vote for a million dollars. There are six players left who have given everything they have to this season. They spent weeks campaigning for your votes. They showed up at the Worlds Apart finale with their bags packed, not knowing if they would be on a plane to Cambodia or back home for dinner with their families the next day. They have spent more than a month living through monsoons, creating alliances and voting blocs in the fastest moving season ever. They have all dodged 13 eliminations through strength or wit or luck.
Every one of them deserves to be there, and everybody can make a case for the million dollars. I know whom I voted for. But I’m as excited to discover the winner as you are.
If that sounds logical, hooray for me. If it don’t, just throw it out the hat.
Survivor Cambodia: Second Chance airs Wednesdays (8 p.m. ET) on CBS.