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.
"In life, as in Survivor, you’ve gotta know when to kiss ass, you’ve gotta know when to kick ass." –Tony Vlachos, winner, Survivor: Cagayan
How would you play Survivor: naughty or nice?
It’s an age-old Survivor question, though the terminology varies. “Old school” vs. “new school.” Last season, Jeff Varner divided his tribe into “beach people” and “shelter people.” The naughty new-school beach people were on the shore scheming. The nice old-school shelter people were in the woods providing.
You’d think by now everybody would be devious snakes. Rob Cesternino quipped in The Amazon: “We’ll see if these guys that are building the shelter are all gonna be here to use it for more than six or nine days.” Spoiler: They weren’t. That was 13 years ago.
Nevertheless, this episode still came down to schemey Anna vs. provider Tai.
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Naughty or Nice?
Anna and Tai knew they were the Yellow Tribe targets. The tribe had a clear majority of Brains, with solo Brawn Scot along for the ride. Plus the producers added a brilliant wrinkle to account for the uneven numbers: Beauty Julia will join the losing tribe next week. The Brains had to vote out a Beauty if they wanted to keep their majority.
Tai and Anna chose two very different play styles to ingratiate themselves to their new Brains overlords. Tai played nice. He worked hard. He let Scot slingshot him into the trees to gather coconuts. Anna meanwhile hustled up and down the beach broadly hinting at Tai’s idol.
Neither play style is necessarily the “right” one. Remember last season, when Kelley Wentworth and Terry Deitz were in the minority? Terry tried the workhorse routine, while Kelley kicked him under the bus for idol hunting.
The exact same strategies – with very different results. Last season, Wentworth got pulled into the Ta Keo alliance. This time, Tai got saved!
That’s part of why Survivor is so difficult. You have to adopt the ideal strategy for that particular moment with that group of people. It just comes down to a gut feeling and a lot of luck.
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Idol or Idle?
The big question of the episode was: Should Tai have played his idol, or was he right to stay idle?
Idol: If Tai played his idol for Anna and took out Peter, he would be eliminating one of the tribe’s three Brains. When Julia joins next week, the three Beauties plus Scot would have a new majority.
Idle: By saving his idol – well, Tai gets to keep an idol. That way, he can still protect himself next week.
Tai made the right call for right now. If this were the final seven of the season, I’d say it was a terrible move. Missing an opportunity to gain a majority at the end could be a game-losing mistake.
But this is just the swap. There’s a lot of game left. A secret idol has a ton of potential. It’s not just a tool to save your butt in one tribal. Tai’s idol is a symbol that binds him to Scot, who shares his secret – and who also realizes its hidden superpower.
Moreover, eliminating Anna puts Tai in a better position with Julia. Anna was the Beauty girls’ ringleader. If Julia joined Anna’s tribe, she would likely fall under Anna’s thumb. Without Anna around, Tai and Julia might bond.
Saving Anna could put Tai in a good position next week – but a worse position later on.
The Fishy goes to Tai this week, who played his spot perfectly. He ingratiated himself with his tribe and made a difficult but correct decision.
Really, though, everybody on Yellow played their best possible moves. The Brains held together and recruited Scot. Scot worked both sides of the Brains/Beauty divide, and made a secret pact with Tai. Even Anna did her best. She threw as much shade as she possible could.
Poor Anna. Just last week she was Queen Bee of the Beauties. Now she’s taking the tribal walk of shame. But ever since Silas Gaither got screwed in Africa, Tribe Swaps have ruined more people’s games than the car curse. When Jeff Probst exclaims, “Drop your buffs!” all you can do is wave your grand plans farewell and mutter a silent prayer to Mark Burnett.
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The other big winner tonight was the “Intentional Matsing” strategy. If you’re not familiar with it, the idea is named for the Matsing tribe on Survivor: Philippines, which after a disastrous string of challenges was reduced just to two members – Denise and Malcolm. Denise went on to win the game and Malcolm placed fourth.
The idea is that in a three-tribe season (really any season, but especially a three tribe season), you may actually benefit from losing the early challenges – assuming you’re not voted out. When there’s a swap or a merge, your tribe is seen as small and unthreatening, and you can play the crucial swing vote while the bigger two tribes battle it out for supremacy. Then you win the game with a perfect underdog story and no built-up resentment from the jury.
The same thing happened in Cagayan, where all three surviving members of the disaster Brains tribe made it into the final six.
On Kaoh Rong, the hot mess Brawn Tribe is likewise reaping the rewards of failure. Jason and Cydney find themselves the belles of the Blue Ball. On Yellow, Scot is also playing the middle. He’s been adopted as the fourth member of the Brains bloc, and he’s secretly working with Tai.
Sometimes the best way to win the game is to lose.
Survivor: Kaoh Rong airs Wednesdays (8 p.m. ET) on CBS.