All Star Strategy #13:  Winning By Losing
Written by Mario Lanza on 05.05.04

"A strange game.  The only winning move is not to play. How about a nice game of chess?"
-Joshua the war computer, Wargames

I'm sure by now you have come to the exact same conclusion that I have.  By now you have probably deduced that there will not be a single surprise the rest of this season, aside from maybe the possible revelation of the winner.  The reason I am so certain that we will not have any surprises is because the producers are trying soooo hard right now to make us think otherwise.  They are going out of their way every week to make it look like Rob and Amber are somehow going to be overthrown.  And, well, if you know Survivor, you know as well as I do that that aint gonna happen.  Either Rob or Amber (with the possible darkhorse pick of Jenna) is going to win this game, and you could have predicted that almost all the way back on day one.

This is a column I have been meaning to write for a while now, and I think it is going to be an important one.  Because basically what we are seeing this season is the -one- flaw in the design of a game like Survivor.   And yeah, we have seen this problem before.  But this season in All Stars it has been especially evident.  And that flaw... is that the best way to win Survivor is to not play the game at all.  I mean, just look at some past history here.  Under-the-radar unthreatening players ALWAYS do well.  You can basically pick them to finish in the top 5 or 6 almost every single time a new season starts.  And it's not really even "under-the-radars" per se, it is more along the lines of players who refuse to ever be involved in a power move.  It is the ones who keep to themselves, the ones who go along with the flow, the ones who basically keep their mouths shut.  The Ambers.  THOSE are the players that always do well in Survivor.  And because of the way the game is designed, those are the players that always will.

Just look at Tom and Rupert this season, because they are perfect examples.  They are both kind of floating along with Rob and Amber, just doing whatever it takes not to make waves.  I assume that both Tom and Rupert are planning to get down to the final four or five... and then make some sort of a last minute thrust to victory.  This plan sounds perfectly good in theory, of course, but I doubt that it is going to work.  Rob and Amber have covered their bases way too well to fall for some sort of a last minute Hail Mary like that.  So I fully expect that Tom and Rupert will be the next two players voted out of the game.  And it really won't be much of a surprise.

But here is the problem.  When Tom and Rupert are voted out, and they will be voted out, they are going to be crucified in the columns and by the Survivor experts out there because "they didn't play the game."  They are going to be accused of being passive, of being stupid, and of making this season extremely dull and predictable to watch.  But the problem with this argument is that Tom and Rupert are both playing this game PERFECTLY.  Don't you see?  This is really the only way you can win Survivor these days.  The only way you can win Survivor after seven seasons is by keeping your mouth shut, by laying low, and by hoping for a little luck (as well as that other people will implode) around you.  That is exactly what the two of them are doing and that is exactly the strategy that the two of them -should- be using.  Because Tom and Rupert aren't stupid.  They have both played this game before and they have figured out the natural evolution of things.  And that evolution is that you play aggressively the first time and then you play passively the second time.  That's really the only way to do it. Passive players just tend to get further in this game.

Look at it this way:   Rupert played terribly his first time around.  He played terribly in Pearl Islands, he was never going to win, and he really didn't even come close.  And sure, he was entertaining, but deep down he knew that he would have to change in order to have a chance of winning in All Stars.  And did he change?  You bet he did.  And the same with Tom, although Tom didn't have to change as much as Rupert did since Tom has always been a little sneaky and shady to begin with. 

But yes, this is the great curse of Survivor.  And it is a curse we have been able to overlook in the past because it hasn't been as obvious as it is this time around in All Stars.  The only way to succeed in the game nowadays is to NOT play the game.  The quiet ones will always do well.  If you are adaptable, if you don't make waves, if you don't stand out, you might as well just pencil yourself right into the final four.  That is why I have been saying that Amber is going to win almost the entire season (with a little Kathy detour in there, I will admit.)  And that is why Amber or Jenna will be my pick from here on out.  Amber Brkich was the PERFECT person to predict as an All Star winner because, as Shii Ann so astutely noted, she has the big green eyes, the unassuming smile, and the quiet demeanor.  In fact, Amber should have been everyone's pick to win this game all along.  At this point in the season I would be quite shocked if she DIDN'T win!

Boston Rob as the winner is an interesting argument because he has been edited as the favorite to win all along.  And I know there is growing sentiment behind him being able to pull off an All Star win, but I'm sorry, I just don't see it happening.  I'm sorry but alpha males do -not- win Survivor.  Not anymore they don't.  All you have to do is go back over all the Survivor winners since Richard and look at the trend:

2. Tina (a mom, adaptable, well liked)
3. Ethan (quiet, respected, well liked)
4. Vecepia (quiet, adaptable, unthreatening)
5. Brian - THE ONE EXCEPTION.  Brian was either the best player of all time, or he just had no competition.  You decide.
6. Jenna (quiet, well liked, unthreatening)
7. Sandra (well liked, adaptable, unthreatening)

Just look at that list and tell me that quiet, unassuming players don't end up winning this game.   Brian is the only one who stands out from the pattern but I still think that Brian Heidik's win was an anomaly.  He was a good player, sure, but Thailand was just a weird season overall.   And don't forget how close Jan came to getting into that final two. 

I have always said that Survivor is a female game and I have always said that a female would win All Stars.  And if that theory holds to be true, then it shouldn't surprise you at all to see that so many All Star players are playing more like females and less like alpha males.  These players have all learned how to play the game, and this time around they are all playing the smart (if somewhat boring) low-key style of "don't make waves" Survivor.  So if you are wondering why this season is kind of boring, if you are wondering why All Stars isn't quite as larger-than-life as you expected it to be, well now you know why.  The reason is that females play Survivor differently than males do.  In fact, in most cases they HAVE to, because they just aren't as big or as powerful or as dominant.  So don't condemn Rupert and Tom for losing most of their personality this time around.  Blame Survivor for being set up the way it has been designed.  And always remember that players aren't static.  They learn and they adapt and they improve the second time around.  Well, okay, except for Lex.  Lex decided to go the other direction and be as aggressive and as visible and as alpha male as was humanly possible.  And hey, look where it got him.

By the way, please don't take this column as a condemnation of Survivor, because it is still my favorite TV show.  This season has just been an interesting experiment in what happens when past players come back to play again.  And I don't think that most of the audience really realized how much the game has changed since the first season.  Because remember, I know it was a long time ago, but don't forget that Mark Burnett originally intended for Survivor to be a "best of the best" type of toughness competition.  He originally intended for the best survivalist to always rise to the top, for it to be almost sort of a Darwinian experiment in natural selection.  And then when the first season started he was STUNNED that things like alliances and voting blocs started to come into play and show up instead.  I remember reading many articles and interviews about how surprised Mark Burnett was that people would band together and form alliances to protect their own interests, because that was just -not- the show he had envisioned when he had pitched it to the network.  Heck, it wasn't even the show that most of the PLAYERS envisioned when they signed up for it.  I mean, just look at what happened to Gretchen and the Pagongs.  If Richard Hatch hadn't been there, I'm not sure that alliances would have even happened that first season in the first place.

Flash forward a couple of months to the second season.  By now alliances have become an accepted (and integral) part of the game.  But deep down there was still a minority of people out there who thought that alliances were unethical and that they were a cowardly way to play.  I remember a few books that came out at the time (The Stingray by Peter Lance being one of them) that condemned Survivor for being a contest where "the fat, the weak, and the downright unethical" had an advantage because they could just band together and take out the strong.  And now you flash forward to All Stars and you can see that this really has been the case.  The visibly strong, outwardly aggressive leaders like Lex van den Berghe, Colby Donaldson, Sue Hawk, Burton Roberts, Andrew Savage... none of these players really stand a chance anymore.  And I want to include Rob Mariano on that list too but I suppose he still could pull off a miracle and win this game.  If he does, I will say that yes, he was indeed the man.  But I will still say he was an anomaly because he probably got lucky. 

In short, it is kind of funny that we have evolved to a point where the best way to play the game of Survivor is to not play the game of Survivor at all.  The safest way to win is to play the complete opposite of how Mark Burnett intended people to play the game in the first place.  By now you can win by losing.  You can win by throwing challenges.  You can win by dragging a goat to the end.  And by now you can win the game by banding together to take out the strong.  And Survivor is the only game show I can think of that actually encourages this type of cowardly strategy.  In my opinion that has always been Survivor's great (only?) flaw.

Winning by losing happens, and it will continue to happen, because the players are smart.  And because the players have learned.  The players have learned what works.  After seven seasons of Survivor, the players have learned that... like Joshua the war computer learned in the movie Wargames... sometimes futility is the single most important lesson you can learn. 

Just like global thermonuclear war in the movie, the only surefire way to win Survivor is not to play the game at all.

~~ Episode Notes ~~

* One of the funniest moments I have ever seen on Survivor took place in this week's episode.  It was when Rob took one look at the fafaru and his face just completely dropped.  I swear, I rewound the tape about five times and I watched that moment over and over, and every time it was funnier than the last.  Rob is sitting there, laughing and looking cocky... and then the fafaru comes out.  And immediately Rob gets this look of horror and disgust on his face.  Because he knows.  He KNOWS what that stuff is and he probably still has nightmares about it.  Too funny.  If you have it on tape, watch it again.  I guarantee it will kill you.

* Speaking of Rob, if you read my column back during Marquesas you will remember that I was a huge Rob Mariano fan at the time.  In fact at one point I even said he was my new favorite player of all time, he had even edged ahead of Tina.  Well, over time I eventually flip-flopped those two and Tina went back to being my #1, but I have always been a huge Rob fan.  In fact, yes, it pains me to admit that Mariano is probably my favorite Survivor Rob of all time (sorry Cesternino, at least it's close!)  However... all that being said... it is MUCH easier to root for Rob when he is an underdog.  I have had a hard time rooting for him this season because, well, as Kathy said, because there is just something that comes out of him when he is in power and it isn't pretty.  So while Rob has played a nearly flawless game this time around in All Stars, for whatever reason I have never really gotten behind him.  He is just tough to root for when he is the guy calling the shots.  I hate to say this, but in All Stars he has really been kind of a dick.

* I didn't really want to harp on the Survivor curse too much but it makes it hard not to when we have a show like the Apprentice which is so similar and which came out at the exact same time.  To me, the Apprentice is the type of show that Mark Burnett expected when he came up with the idea of Survivor.  Because the Apprentice is merit based, the strong will always survive,  And everyone puts forth their full effort at all times to be the best of the best.  You can't do well in the Apprentice by being a coward and throwing a challenge.  Now contrast that with Survivor, where the weak band together, where the strong are dead meat, and where people routinely throw challenges just to get rid of their enemies.  Do you think that Donald Trump would let people get away with throwing projects on the Apprentice?  I don't think so!  You throw a challenge on that show and your ass is fired.  That is the big difference between the two shows and it is a good example of why I appreciate the design of the Apprentice a lot more.  I think Survivor is a better TV show overall, but I definitely respect anyone who wins the Apprentice.  Because that show is almost entirely merit based.  The most dominant one will always win.  And Survivor hasn't been that way for a long time.

* I can't really sign off without a section on Shii Ann.  First off, I was never much of a Shii Ann fan in Thailand.  She never really did it for me and, frankly, I was a little skeptical when I saw she had been cast for All Stars.  I always thought she was irrelevant and annoying.  But I have to say that she did great in All Stars.  She was clearly one of the stars of the season and her "salvation" episode where she saved her own butt was one of the best moments of the season.  So I give her and the All Star editors a lot of credit.  You guys turned me into a Shii Ann fan, and I think that she kicked a lot of butt this season.  She is now one of my favorites.  But, come on, you know I can't be all sweet and gushy without making some sort of an obligatory cheap shot!  Anyway, kudos to Shii Ann for her efforts to break stereotypes on network TV.  She leaves Survivor as the only Asian female on TV who can't conform to a group, who butts heads with authority figures, who is terrible at mental games and mindgame puzzles... yet who can outmuscle Rupert and Boston Rob in a willpower-based strength challenge.  Congratulations Shii Ann, you broke down a lot of barriers in the world.  Sorry, I couldn't resist!  :)


If Amber or Jenna do not win this game, I will be shocked.   I will be flabbergasted.  And kudos to Shii Ann for pointing that out.   I, along with everyone else in the world, thought that she was going to name Rob as the player to watch out for.  But Amber is a much better choice.  That Shii Ann is a smart one.

1. Amber Brkich
All Stars was made for Amber.  Even if she doesn't win (hint: she won't not win), I am glad she got a chance to elevate her reputation the second time around.  Just between you and me, I hope she Brkicks all of their butts.

2. Jenna Lewis
Jenna is final three material for sure, maybe even final two.  If Amber doesn't pull off the win, then she will.  And don't think I didn't predict a Jenna win waaaaaay back in my pre-season dialogue with Murtz.  I actually picked a final four of Jenna L., Amber, Boston Rob, and Lex.  How is that for accuracy?

3. Rob Mariano
Rob is in a wonderful position at the moment and he is final four easy.  I just don't think he will win.  I predict he will be losing to his girlfriend Amber in the final two.  And I don't think it will be all that close.  She is gonna snaaaake him.

4. Rupert Boneham
You might think he is boring this season, but he is playing a much smarter, much less TV-friendly game this time around.  I suppose he has a chance to win, but a lot would have to go right for that to happen.

5. Tom Buchanan
Tom makes the top 5 in both of his attempts at Survivor, and that's pretty darn good.  Nobody else was able to do that.  But his time in this game will soon be over.  And as many readers pointed out to me this week, the multiple shots of him and Bucky Bo dancing together were just plain wrong.

Boot pick for next week:  Rupert.

The S-C Apprentice:

As I have mentioned before, this will be my last season writing this column.  *cue sad music*  And as I mentioned last week... I will be running a game in the offseason called "The S-C Apprentice." Basically I will be choosing between 10 potential writers to see who gets to take over this column (and the Power Rankings) next season.  I will be running the game just like the real Apprentice show... only it will be made up of writing challenges. The results will be posted on the message board all throughout the offseason (I will also post who gets fired each week). So if you are interested in playing... and possibly taking over as the writer of Survivor Strategy next season... please drop me an email.  I hope to hear from a lot of talented writers and Survivor fans (we have 23 applicants already!)  This could be your big shot to become a columnist!



Mario Lanza is a 30-year old writer and programmer from Los Angeles.  He is the lead author of the S-C All-Star Stories as well as the smash hit Survivor: Okinawa (the finale is this weekend!)  And like Ken, he enjoys when people mail him chocolate chip cookies.