Stephen Fishbach's 'Survivor' Blog: How Playing the Middle Ends Up 'Jeopardizing Your Place in the Game'

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

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.

“The kind of person who makes a decision and convinces other people of that decision is the kind of person that wins Survivor.” – Hannah Shapiro, Survivor: Millennials vs. Gen. X

“Say yes to everybody.”

It’s classic Survivor advice. No matter who is pulling you into the woods to make an alliance, your answer should always be yes. If you hesitate, if you hem and haw, if you fail to shake every outstretched hand, you could find yourself like Jonathan Penner in Survivor: Philippineseliminated in 7th place because he wouldn’t make a deal.

Bellhop Ryan Ulrich is a student of the game. So when Ali approaches Ryan about aligning with Roark, his immediate answer? Yes!

“I like it! Tell Roark we’re on board.”

And when Chrissy approaches Ryan about voting out Roark, his immediate answer? Also yes!

“Yeah! Perfect!” he says.

By agreeing to everything, Ryan positions himself in the middle between two groups. On the one hand, he can go with Ali and Roark and vote out Chrissy. Or he could side with Chrissy and JP to vote out Roark.

Some people think the middle is a great place to be. You have all the power! You are the decision maker!

Robert Voets/CBS

I am not one of those people. I believe that if you try to play the middle, you end up betraying more people, infuriating your former allies, and ultimately jeopardizing your place in the game. Only the truly gifted and lucky (typically former Cagayan castaways) can make the middle work.

Take it from Mr. Penner himself. “My mistake is I was playing both sides against the middle without making a commitment to anybody. That was probably my mistake. I did not choose a side.”

Or as finalist and game changer Aubry Bracco has it, “Sometimes the guy who’s in the middle of the road gets run over.”

This is where the strategy of “yes” shows its limits. Of course you should accept every extended alliance. But when it comes to the actual vote, you shouldn’t simply agree to everyone else’s plan and then make your decision at tribal council. Strategic players should build a consensus between their allies – and subtly coax other players into eliminating their ideal targets.

This is easier said than done, of course. Survivor often casts irrational players with unreasonable grudges. It can be very hard to somehow bring opposed players into the same plan.

That’s why lies exist!

Chrissy plays her position in the way that Ryan should have. She tells lies in order to sway her ally’s opinion and accomplish her goals

When Chrissy talks to fellow Hero JP, she proposes voting out Roark. JP objects. “She’s good in the challenges,” he says.

That means Ryan is likely JP’s preferred target. Ryan botched the reward challenge with his awkward slither up the sand dunes. And Ryan is Chrissy’s secret ally.

Art by Erik Reichenbach
Art by Erik Reichenbach

So Chrissy makes up a lie. “Roark wants to do an all girl’s alliance,” she says.

It’s the perfect deception. Nothing causes panic in male Survivor players quite like the dreaded threat of the women’s alliance. I’ve called it a “misogynist ghost story” for its enduring hold on the male contestant’s imagination. I would guess that many more women have been voted out because they were perceived to be starting women’s alliances than actual women’s alliances have been created on the show. It’s like the Salem witch trials of Survivor.

Indeed, JP’s about-face is so sudden it leaves skid marks. “She’s gotta go,” he says. “Simple as that.”

Chrissy wins this week’s Fishy for concocting a false story to eliminate her preferred target, even when nobody else was on board. Sure, Chrissy should have talked strategy with Roark before the day of Tribal Council. But when it came to mustering the vote, she delivered. And ultimately, that’s what Survivor is about.

The preview next week shows Ali unloading on Ryan for leaving her in the dark. He’s betrayed her in the one place that matters – the voting booth.

My hope is that this is a growing pains moment for him. We’ve heard a lot about Ryan’s social game. “I just have to continually cater to my specific skillset, which is my social game,” he says. “Ryan definitely plays the best social game,” says Ali.

Maybe Ryan will realize that a truly superb social player doesn’t just tell self-effacing jokes. They also talk people in circles and determine the votes.

As for Roark, she leaves the game with some generous parting words.

“I’m not going to blame it on being swapped. I always think there’s something someone can do, and evidently I didn’t do it. I own that.”

I Don't Like Having Snakes Around
Robert Voets/CBS

It’s a gracious way to go.

But I think Roark got unlucky in ways she may not even have realized at the time. At the swap, Roark looked like she might be the beneficiary of a 2-2-1 split. But the never-before-seen super idol created a bond between Ryan and Chrissy that ended up determining Ryan’s vote. Without that game twist, maybe Ryan would have sided with Ali and Roark, and maybe Roark would have stuck around to the merge where she could rejoin the Healers – who seem to be in an even more dominant position now that Dr. Mike has found an idol.

A butterfly flaps its wings in Jeff Probst’s house, he dreams up the super idol, and Roark is eliminated. A tiny change dramatically impacts the entire season.

That’s Survivor and that’s life.

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

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