Decisions on Survivor, like all of life, are based on emotion as much as on reason

Survivor: David vs. Goliath
Credit: Robert Voets/CBS via Getty Images

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.

“Grab, scratch, claw at every single advantage you can ever find.”

— Wendell Holland, winner, Survivor: Ghost Island

Decisions on Survivor, like all of life, are based on emotion as much as on reason. We like to imagine the game is a tactical chess match – eleven Kasparovs ratiocinating over their perfect play. In reality, it’s a group of starved, sleep-deprived lunatics trapped on an island and raging against the sky.

That’s why a big flashy idol play like Davie’s last week can fundamentally change the momentum of the game. It’s not just about the strategy of one move. The tenor around camp changes. And people on the wrong side start to worry that the game is leaving them behind.

You can see the paranoia creep in. “The biggest risk is if there is a secret advantage and we miss the boat,” Alison says. “They make the big move. All of us then are just picked off slowly but surely.”

Granted, Alison is right that there is a secret advantage. With Nick’s vote steal and Carl’s idol nullifier, there are two secret advantages. But if the Goliaths actually stay strong, they still have the numbers! They can even lose a member and stay even!

The bigger danger for the Goliaths is fear and mistrust. If they turn on each other too soon, they destroy all of their games. As much as I’m rooting for the underdog Davids, I actually agree with Mike’s philosophy. “If we split up and go with those guys, we’re basically forfeiting any chance of winning,” he says. Or as Dan notes at tribal council, Why flip from the Goliaths to the bottom of the Davids?

There are basically two arguments you can make in favor of flipping.

First, there’s Alison’s idea. “To win this game, I want a resume and I want to make big moves,” she says. But flipping just to make a ‘big move’ is a terrible game decision. Putting yourself in a worse position simply to do something is self-defeating at best. Alison, to her credit, eventually has the epiphany, “I’ve been so busy trying to do something, I didn’t realize that the right move is to take a step back and go with the flow.”

I’m much more sympathetic to Kara’s point of view. “Dan feels like an anchor that’s bringing me down and holding me at a certain stage of the game,” she says. If you don’t see a clear way to win on your current path, it makes more sense to destabilize things.

Or as Davie says, “If everything’s just been stagnant with the tribe you’re on, maybe switching it up may change things for you.”

While the Goliaths trip themselves up, the Davids work together like a well-oiled machine. Maybe Gabby was the prophet of the season, when she said in the first episode, “Our advantage is we are scrappy and we have to work together and use each other to succeed.” Combined, the Davids have a dragon’s hoard of advantages and idols, and they’re deploying them perfectly. At tribal council, Nick steals Alison’s vote and uses it against Dan. Then Carl plays the idol nullifier, which eliminates Dan’s idol.

Davie and Alison from this season of Survivor comicCredit Erik Reichenbach
Credit: Erik Reichenbach

All season long the Davids have been on the bottom – dominated in the pre-merge, in minorities after the swap, and scrambling from vote to vote at the merge. Now they’re even numbers, and clearly have that elusive momentum. And Christian, thanks to his breadth-first search, has a new immunity idol.

I want to give credit again to how clutch Davie’s idol play was last week. A lot of people would have held onto that idol, knowing it wasn’t their name being written down at tribal council. Davie gave the entire David tribe the opportunity to even things up.

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In some ways, it’s tactically easier to play from the bottom than it is from the top. When you’re in the dominant alliance, you have to constantly assess your own position, wonder about your chances with the jury, and try to navigate shifting power structures of the game. When you’re on the bottom, you need to stick together, throw bombs, and hope for the best. You try anything, because you have nothing to lose.

Dan is definitely the correct target for the Davids. He, Angelina, and Mike are the only three “Goliath-strong” people left in the game, and Dan is an immunity beast. Take him out now, and watch the Goliaths crumble.

Did Nick “need” to play the vote steal? With Alec and Kara voting for Angelina, the Davids had the numbers – as long as Carl played his idol nullifier. But of course, the Davids couldn’t be sure where the Goliaths were actually voting. And there’s also the possibility that the Goliaths only flipped their votes after Nick executed his steal. We see Alec and Kara whispering to each other. It’s totally possible they saw where the votes were going and called an audible.

But this is once again the Goliaths stabbing themselves in the foot. Once again, the majority alliance has the most trouble functioning as a unit. By voting for Angelina, Kara and Alec are basically ensuring that the Goliath alliance falls apart. Why on earth would Angelina work with them after this point?

I was slightly curious about Nick’s decision to take Alison’s vote. At first I thought it was brilliant misdirection, a way to throw Dan off the scent that he was the real target. But then with Carl’s idol nullifier in play, the Davids didn’t actually need to misdirect or confuse. All this does is alienate Alison.

The Fishy goes to Carl, who plays his idol nullifier at the perfect moment. Without Carl’s nullifier, all the vote stealing and the politicking would have been meaningless. This is the kind of Survivor resume you want to build: the key part of the key maneuver.

And give Dan credit too, even as he walks down loser lane. He correctly guessed he was the target, and played his idol for himself. He did the right things. He couldn’t possibly have known about an advantage that never existed before.

Now he heads to the jury, bitter at Alec and Kara who turned against him.

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