The show's only three-time player nearly manipulated his way to the end.
Credit: Monty Brinton/CBS

Competing on Survivor for the third time, Jonathan Penner skated through with few alliances, yet he survived until day 30 by using every trick up his sleeve. He tells PEOPLE how he worked every angle, held no grudges, and had the time of his life.

How was playing Survivor different the third time around?
I think I played better than before, because I had experience of having been out there three times. This time, I went out to play hard and win challenges. I was lucky or smart enough to find the idol and play it at the right time. I won immunity when I needed it. I worked every trick that I had.

You just never had the numbers.
A lot of things happened. Dana went home sick. Our tribe lost some key challenges and we went into the merge with a 7-4 disadvantage.

Yet there was some good luck. You won immunity for the first time in your 80 days playing the game. I hear you cried when you won.
I did cry. I cried because I thought about my daughter watching me win immunity on TV.

So, with you gone, who’s playing the best game out there now?
Malcolm is playing a great game. He’s a superstar. I wish I could grow up to be like him. He has an incredible way about him, and people like him a lot. I liked him a lot.

You seemed to connect with Lisa Whelchel out there, but it also seemed like you were manipulating her. Which was it?I don’t know that those things are mutually exclusive. We really did connect. I didn’t mean to manipulate her; I tried to engender trust with her. I just wanted to turn her head. I wanted to influence her.

But that sounds like a nice way of saying you were being manipulative.
Perhaps you’re right. When I knew my name came up, I tried everything I could. I tried to use guilt, sadness, fear, anger. I wanted to find the key to get her to keep me in the game. I played on her intellectually, emotionally, spiritually. I was playing the game.

You said that Lisa and Mike Skupin could beat you in the finals. I’m not sure that’s true.
I did say that, but I think I could have beaten them in the end.

So were you lying?
I was giving them hope. I was making the best argument that I had, that Denise and Malcolm are well-liked and that they stood a better chance against me than against them.

You did a lot of strange things out there, like throwing a vote in Abi’s direction for no reason. Can you explain?
I was playing for the jury. I wanted to say to people, “I didn’t vote for you.” I never wanted there to be a tie where I was responsible for someone being voted out.

You also turned down a final three alliance with Lisa and Mike, which is why they aligned with Malcolm and Denise.
I didn’t want to lie to them and make a commitment I couldn’t keep. Lisa had voted for me twice, and I felt it wasn’t fair for me to make a commitment. I should have made the alliance with them.

That’s what cost you the game.
Lisa made other plans when I turned down the alliance and she didn t want to break her word. And Mike was happy to see me go, because he saw me as a threat.

Any bitterness towards them?
Absolutely not. I had a great time out there with Mike and Lisa – and with everyone else out there. I have no sour grapes, no anger towards anyone. I had a fantastic time playing Survivor and I’m very fortunate to get to play it three times.