Fishbach has been blogging his experiences from Cambodia

By Stephen Fishbach
November 30, 2015 11:00 AM
Timothy Kuratek/CBS

Stephen Fishbach was the runner-up on Survivor: Tocantins and has been blogging about Survivor strategy for PEOPLE since 2009. This season, he has been blogging about his experiences in Cambodia as a competitor on Survivor: Second Chance. Follow Stephen on Twitter @stephenfishbach.

"If it’s a move that sends you home, at least you went out trying to make a move." –Ciera Eastin, Survivor: Blood vs. Water

"This game involves creating a lot of dynamic structures, and then working within those structures to advance yourself as best as you can." –Stephen Fishbach, Survivor: Tocantins

So what’s it like getting voted out of Survivor?

I’ve heard people say different things. The death of their dream. Their heart stops like a snuffed flame.

For me, it was great fun. Before I ever went on Survivor, the one thing I wanted was a framed shot of Jeff Probst snuffing my torch. Luckily, I never got that iconic Survivor experience from Tocantins. This time I’ll get my photo.

I was a longshot to win Second Chance, and I’m proud of the game I played: aggressive and emotionally open. More than anything, I didn’t want to coast into the finals as a goat. Instead, I was eliminated as a threat. Other than the million bucks, what more could I ask for?

So thank you once again to everybody who voted me in. As the saying goes, I got to have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity twice.

But I’m getting way ahead of myself.

As we went to vote out Wiglesworth, I knew that her elimination would disrupt our fragile alliance structure. However, I thought that I could move fast enough to pick up the pieces. I’d do damage control with Tasha and Kimmi while ratifying new treaties with the Three Witches.

But that Tribal Council, the monsoon hit. Solid sheets of rain destroyed our camp. Our one-time fire pit became a water-filled hole. Frigid gusts blew through the open face of our shelter, soaking us to the bone as we clung huddling together. In three days, I literally did not sleep one minute and ate a combined total of two olives and a handful of dried rice.

Rain itself isn’t so miserable if you can occasionally get dry or warm. In Tocantins, it rained more days than in Cambodia – but not as ferociously, and it would stop, giving us the chance to build a fire, get dry, cook food. The Cambodian monsoon didn’t end for days. I even bet Spencer that the rain would never stop before the season ended. Granted, that was unlikely, but the stakes were all of Spencer’s life savings against one McDonalds value meal. (Spencer obviously won that bet.)

Because of the terrible conditions, I got viciously ill. I think it was a combination of malnourishment and dehydration. It was pouring so badly, we ran out of water, and nobody would make the long hike to the well to fill up our canteens. I had to leave the shelter 17 times in one night to be sick. Because I didn’t want the monsoon soaking my clothes – which were just “wet” and not “waterlogged” – I stripped down each time I left the shelter and folded my clothes up so I could find them in the pitch black night when I returned.

I worried my body was collapsing. Meanwhile, my BFFs back at camp suspected me of subterfuge. They speculated that my advantage – or as I was calling it, my “disadvantage” – was actually a secret shelter stocked with food to which I was sneaking off. That’s the danger of an unknown advantage – people’s imaginations can conjure anything. To my own discredit, I hadn’t come up with a good solution for what to tell the tribe about my new superpower.

The rain didn’t just deplete our energy and ruin our higher functions. It also made any strategic hustling impossible. As Ciera said, “I can’t get out and have one-on-one conversations because we’re all stuck inside the shelter.” I couldn’t do any of the damage control I needed or craft any of my new alliances. My game speed was rendered useless – especially because it was painful to even walk on my injured monster feet.

By the time of that first immunity challenge, my brain had effectively shut down. There was no question that I would choose a renewed shelter over the thrill of losing another ball-balancing challenge to Joe. A warm fire and a roof were not just creature comforts – they were the baseline human necessities that I needed to play a strategic game.

Fire, shelter, cookies and coffee. Let Joe have his immunity, I had chocolate and caffeine! I finally felt renewed and tried to put a plan in place to take out Ciera, who I knew had been targeting me and who also was supposedly targeting Spencer. Ciera was dangerous because she was strategic, crafty and had the votes of Wentworth and Abi locked up. I was also frustrated with her because I had been working hard to keep her in the game as an ally, yet kept on hearing that she was throwing my name around as an enemy.

As we left for Tribal Council, I thought everything was in place. Thus, in what is undoubtedly my biggest blunder of the entire season that eventually cost me the game, I didn’t take the advantage with me to Tribal Council.

Why on earth wouldn’t I take an advantage to Tribal? It’s idiotic in retrospect, but I had my sleep-deprived reasons at the time. The plan was set, and I had buried my advantage far away from camp because I didn’t want one of my tribemates “accidentally” finding it. However, because my feet were swollen and injured, it would take me a half hour to retrieve it. I thought if the tribe saw me hobbling off to dig up my advantage that would trigger people’s paranoia. The game was moving so fast, they had more than enough time to blindside me.

Moreover, everyone is paranoid at Tribal Council. It’s easy to get anxious and assume your ticket is up. I was paranoid of my own paranoia. I didn’t want to misplay the advantage if I was perfectly safe.

I’m still kicking myself. If I had my advantage, I could have played it then, perhaps saved myself without Jeremy’s help and then not been such a threat for the next boot. You can see how it works: a dozen little micro-decisions go into every calculation. Every choice you make has unforeseen consequences.

On the trip over to Tribal, small inconsistencies from my conversations throughout the day kept echoing in my head. A stray remark Wentworth had dropped. Something that Ciera said. They didn’t quite make sense.

Before I left for Cambodia, Rob Cesternino and Tyson Apostol had warned me that one of my biggest challenges in the game would be that I had never been voted out. When you’re voted off Survivor, you can see the clues add up in retrospect, the weird little moments throughout the day. I wasn’t sensitive to those warnings because I had never experienced them.

Walking over to Tribal, I realized that I had just seen those little inconsistencies and there was nothing I could do to prevent them. As we walked into Tribal holding our torches, I looked frantically over at Jeremy because I knew I was done.

He just winked back.

The first episode’s Fishy goes to Jeremy. He saved my life in the game, and proved there could be trust in a season that seemed faithless. He didn’t just prove loyalty to me: he showed it to everybody. As he whispered to Spencer, “I would do the same for you.” The move also built up his résumé, showing that he was not afraid to take charge in a difficult situation and put everything on the line.

Of course, we didn’t know that he had a second idol in his pocket!

Coming back to camp after the crazy Tribal Council, I was confounded. How on earth had Spencer and Tasha chosen to vote against me? An entire strategic plan had emerged, been debated, been executed and been foiled, and I had known nothing about it. It’s incredible how much the game can change when you’re away even for a few minutes, if people want to keep you in the dark. I was struggling to piece together what had happened while I was sick. I knew I had to do massive damage control.

I wrote earlier this season that I had consciously chosen to keep my relationships with people strategic. I thought that making emotional bonds would only hurt me in the finals, when people could feel personally betrayed. But I wondered now if my failure to build those bonds had made me a target. Maybe people didn’t trust me precisely because they didn’t feel connected with me. I resolved to try to fix things by reinforcing the human bonds with the people whose votes I needed most.

I had a perfect opportunity when I won that reward. I was thrilled to win such an iconic Survivor challenge, especially after a season filled with challenge flubs. But of course, winning a reward is incredibly dangerous. No matter whom you take with you, the people left behind are pissed. Take your allies, and your enemies grumble. Take your enemies, and your allies start to wonder what’s so great about you. There is literally no right decision.

I had to take Jeremy. He had never been on an award, and he had just saved me with his idol. If I had left him behind, his loyalty toward me would have dimmed. He was even miffed that I picked him second instead of first!

I picked Tasha because she seemed like a vital swing vote with whom I had once been close. We had left Tasha out of the Wigles blindside, and I needed to repair that rift. I didn’t take Kimmi because I completely trusted her and thought she could keep an eye on camp. I left Spencer behind because I trusted him too and thought that his highly rational game decisions wouldn’t be based on a food reward. I clearly was mistaken.

As for the rest of them – of course I wasn’t going to pick Keith or Wentworth or Joe or Abi. Would people who had been my adversaries all game long suddenly be my allies because of a steak?

I also worked to reinforce my bond with Spencer, especially because I didn’t take him on reward. We had consciously stayed away from each other throughout the game because people were suspicious of our working together. Spencer explained that he had voted against me the night Ciera went home because he had heard I was targeting him. We had heart-to-hearts where we discussed our personal and in-game relationships, and resolved to work together closely moving forward.

When Joe lost immunity, I finally had the shot I had been waiting for. I had been positioning myself to take out Joe since the beginning – partially because I knew he was a threat who wanted me out, and partially too because I thought I could get “credit” for Joe’s head and prove to the jury that I had realized my second-chance story. I figured everybody else would want him gone too.

The big danger was if Joe had an idol. I knew I was likely Joe’s target, so my neck was on the line. Joe had been searching everywhere for weeks. He had probably looked in every tree on that beach. Everyone assumed he had found one.

Moreover, Joe was acting extremely relaxed after losing the immunity. Rather than scrambling all over the beach, searching for idols or building last-minute alliances, he was hanging out by the shelter. This was not the behavior of a man about to go home.

So I decided to use my advantage. That way, with Jeremy, Kimmi, Tasha and Spencer, along with my stolen vote, I would have six votes – enough to split between Abi and Joe. I thought there was a chance Keith, Wentworth and Abi would vote along with me to take out the golden boy. But even if they didn’t, the worst that they could do would be to tie the vote – and on a revote, I could take out Joe or Abi.

Shortly before Tribal Council, however, Jeremy told me that something seemed off with Spencer. I dismissed it. Jeremy had been paranoid recently, and I trusted Spencer entirely. It wouldn’t make sense for him to team up with erratic Abi and Keith against his longtime allies me, Jeremy and Tasha. Plus, with our five, I thought he had a fantastic position in the game, with an alliance of people who were rational and all of whom he could beat in challenges. Why go with Joe and Keith, the biggest physical threats in the game?

I have to give Spencer the Fishy for the second episode. He masterminded the plan to get me out, and perfectly convinced me of his loyalty.

In this deleted scene, Spencer explains that on the one hand, Joe kept beating him in the immunities – and on the other, I beat him out for the advantage and the reward. I think Spencer’s choice came down to his own self-conception. Was he a physical player who wanted to remove Joe or a cerebral player who wanted me out? But of course we know the answer. Spencer was introduced to America on Survivor: Cagayan as a Brain, and that designation has defined him.

I also imagine that Spencer was worried about the strategic guy running around the beach with a mysterious advantage in his pocket. Was he having flashbacks to Cagayan? Spencer likely targeted me for the same reasons that I was targeting Joe. It gives him a résumé, and fulfills some of his unfinished business from his first season.

That said, with only six votes left in the game, I am surprised that Spencer took out someone he could beat for immunities or at the final tribal. Why not eliminate Joe now and take me out later? Or if he were going to make a move on my alliance, why not vote for Jeremy, the biggest threat of all?

Even as I was sitting at Tribal Council, waiting for Spencer to vote, I noticed that it was taking him an awfully long time to write down “Joe” on the parchment. The thought crossed my mind: Could something be up? If I flipped both my votes to Abi, she’d be gone. But I didn’t want to waste a shot at Joe – maybe I really was too fixated – and I just didn’t believe that Spencer would flip.

Clearly I was wrong, and that error in judgment cost me the game. I have to give Spencer credit. He played me perfectly.

I’m also giving Joe a Fishy for this second episode. Everybody assumed Joe would be gone the moment he lost immunity. I sure assumed it! Joe managed to make deep bonds that carried him through his moment of vulnerability. That was one of the tests of his Second Chance success, and he met it.

Survivor is a game of mistakes. So what did I do wrong? Obviously, a lot. Everybody does a lot wrong, and everybody does a lot right, and the best you can do is minimize your mistakes, maximize your successes and hope for a little luck. I should have played the advantage the first chance I got, just to burn it and remove the target. I shouldn’t have trusted Spencer as much as I did. I shouldn’t have split the vote. For the rest, there are so many circumstances that unspool out of every decision, it’s impossible to try to second-guess a million tiny choices.

Should we have split the vote on the Savage blindside? That would have saved Savage, but I could easily have been gone next. Should I have tried to save Monica? Maybe, but she could have flipped faster than Wigles. It’s just impossible to know.

I’ve always said that everybody on Survivor is the hero of their own story. Everyone is hustling around, crafting alliances, making second-by-second strategic calculations that they think will win them the game.

When you’re voted out, you become a character in someone else’s story. It’s hard for anybody to see that transition take place, which is why people’s exit interviews are so often clouded by personal bias.

I’m sure I’ve made a lot of mistakes in my chronicle of the season thus far. I’ve tried to be objective when I could.

But this is just one person’s version of events – one perspective out of 20.

I’m grateful to all of you for reading.

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

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