Winning Survivor With Style: The Andy Kaufman Strategy
(aka How to be the Ultimate Villain in Survivor History)

Posted by Mario Lanza on 09.12.02

"The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn't exist."

Since I started writing this column last year, there is one question that I get more than any other.

"So when are YOU going on Survivor?"

I can't tell you how many emails I get about this topic. Although I have to say it's much better than the previous winner for most-asked question:

"So, are you related to Mario Lanza the singer?"

For those of you under thirty, there was a singer/actor in the 50's named Mario Lanza. He is considered one of the greatest tenors of all time. And for the record, NO, I'm not related to him. I'm just named after him. And I was supposed to be "Christopher" up until the day I was born. I'm considered Italian only by the most liberal of definitions, and I don't speak a word of it. I don't even look close to Italian, in fact someone at work told me I look more like a "Chad," or a "Bret." And to further drive the point home, Mario Lanza wasn't his real name anyway, it was just a stage name. So that being cleared up, back to the Survivor question.

"Mario, do you think you could win Survivor?"

A quick answer to that would be, hell yeah. Of course I think I can win. But then again, everybody thinks they can win, so who gives a crap what I think? But it's only common sense that you would have to think you can win before you go on a show like this. Otherwise, why are you doing it? Okay, if you are Gabriel Cade, maybe your answer is a little different. But for the most part, at this point, people go on this show because they want to win. Except for Amber.

Now of course I think I could win. But the more realistic question would be, do I think I would win Survivor?

Nope, probably not.

There are just far too many factors working against someone to guarantee success in this show, such as teammates, twists, challenges, illness, pure dumb luck, and the fact that you have a one-in-a-million chance of ever being picked to compete in the first place. And as Kathy O'Brien said once in an email to me, "60-75% of this game is LUCK!" So there's really not a whole lot you can do to ensure anything in the Survivor world.

When we were writing the All-Star Hawaii story this offseason, I was again struck by how much in this game is dumb luck. How well you do in this game is based mainly on who your teammates are, how they decide to play, who gets along with whom, who gets sick, who reacts to hunger better, whose body breaks down, etc. There's really very little you can do to flat out say, "This is how to play and how to win."

But that being said, there are things you can do to maximize your chances for success in this game. There are things you can do to ensure that you will stick around for a while. Though one could make a case that by this point in the show (four seasons worth of history), the players are far too savvy for anyone's strategy to really work. It's basically just a big war, and at the end, only one person remains standing, meaning that some times, players will win pretty much by default (like Ethan.) The best way to win at this point seems to be as simple as, "don't screw up!" When people start attracting attention to themselves, that's when they get targeted. So if you have a strategy to win, you sure as hell better disguise it well. If the other people see your strategy, you are done. No one played that part of the game better than Vecepia Towery. No one saw her strategy, heck I don't even think the editors saw it. But she did have one, and outlasted them all, by simply maximizing her chances for success, and not screwing up, or attracting attention. And I think that's really the only way you can win by this point. The players are too savvy to let you win any other way.

Suffice it to say, I have done a lot of thinking on how I would play the game if I ended up on the show. A lot of thinking. My wife and I have two small children and we're pretty much stuck in the house for the next four years, so it's safe to say I have plenty of time to fantasize and think about stuff like this. And I have developed a strategy which I think is pretty solid. I've turned this topic over in my head many times, and have modified the strategy over time, as needed. It seems pretty airtight to me. As a small disclaimer, of course there's no way to guarantee anything in this game, but I think if you stuck to this strategy, I think you could make the merge pretty easily. And after that, it's all about adaptation and observation. So my goal is to get you to the merge.

Oh, and you also have to be a bit of an asshole to pull this one off. Or a sociopath, depending on how far you want to go with it. As one reader told me, "Mario, the other players would never speak to you again if you tried that on national TV!" But hey, look at it this way...

A million bucks can buy you a lot of new friends.


I like to call my strategy the "Andy Kaufman Strategy." If you don't know who Andy was, he was a comedian/performance artist in the late 70's/early 80's. He's one of my personal heroes, and that was even before they made the movie about his life a few years ago (Man on the Moon). And my simple reason for liking him is that the guy had balls. The guy was totally fearless, had absolutely no inhibitions, didn't care if the audience liked him, and could really give a rat's ass about other people. He existed simply to entertain himself, and make a mockery out of those around him. If you know about his career or stand-up act at all, you will know what I am talking about. Some of his performances and acts had the sole purpose of pissing the audience off, just because he thought it was funny that they hated him. The world was the joke, and only Andy got the punchline. You either loved him or hated him, but no one really knew who he was. Even when he died, people didn't know if he was faking it or not.

The reason I call my strategy the "Andy Kaufman" strategy is that it is based on one of his favorite pasttimes. He loved to just adopt a persona, and never break character, not for anyone. In fact, he spent years in some characters, even his best friends couldn't get him to crack. So I would play Survivor by simply making up a character for myself. Before you get out to the island, just dream up a persona for yourself. You can be anything you want, because remember that the other players don't know ANYTHING ABOUT YOU. Remember that! You can tell them anything you want about yourself, and as long as you are believable they have no reason to doubt you. The key therefore is to never break character. Never, ever let down your guard. If you do, you are dead. I can't help you then. But if you have the stones to make up a fake persona and stick to it for a month, you have the kind of single-minded determination needed to win this game. If you could pull it off, and never break character, then Andy himself would have been proud. It's something he did every minute of his life.

Now, of course, you are thinking, what good would it do to make up a fake personality? How would that help? Well there's a simple reason for this: There is a certain group of player that is always underestimated. There's one player in every cast who people dismiss as stupid, or simple, or too nice. And that would be the person from the small town. The redneck. The hillbilly. The person from the South. Whatever label you want to assign to them (Burnett used "Redneck"), they are consistently underestimated.

Sue Hawk.

Rodger Bingham.

Tina Wesson.

Tom Buchanan.

Teresa Cooper.

I suppose you could stretch this to include Paschal English, but Sue, Tom and Tina are the three I am most interested in. The three of them ALL MADE THE FINAL FOUR, without much competition. People didn't have a clue that Sue was clever, or that Tina had her killer instinct, or, more specifically, that Rodger was once the CEO of a bank.

I've been stunned that this strategy has never really been used. No one has flat out tried to pass themself off as someone they are not. In fact, Rodger Bingham, surprisingly enough, has come the closest. Who would have known that sweet, nice Rodger once held one of the more cutthroat jobs you can get, a CEO. And in fact, whoops, he forgot to tell anyone. Silly me, I'm just a farmer and teacher, I guess I forgot to mention what I used to do. So of all the players who have adopted this fake persona, Rodger is really the only one who has tried it. Rob Mariano admitted that he also changed his personality somewhat for the game, but you could tell in a second what he was up to.

Now, you don't really have to be from the South, or from a small town, or anything like that. Although a small town would help, just make one up if you aren't familiar with any. The main point is that you just have to come off as... I guess the best word would be "sheltered." You have to pass yourself off as someone who hasn't seen a whole lot of life, or of the world. Don't adopt a fake accent or anything, just don't let on that you know much about the ways of the world. Heck, you could even go so far to say that you have never watched the show before. "No, my friend just told me to try out for the show as a dare, I'm not really sure what we are in for." Now remember that you really and truly have to believe in this character, so you have to sell it. Don't go over the top, but you need to have everyone underestimate you from day one. And do it with a smile. No one likes a sourpuss.


Now once you are into your character, there's a few more traits that I think you need. Number one, and this is the one that is going to irk some people, is that you need to be religious. You need to get in good with the other religious people, and establish some sort of ethical basis for your personality. You can either be religious in real life, or just study up and fake it. But it needs to be known that you are a very ethical person, and can be trusted. And once you are in with the religious people, and in tight, you can basically wreak havoc with the game and not arouse suspicion. This is one of the keys to my strategy, and the one which will be the hardest for a lot of people. You absolutely have to be convincing in your faith. Think Tina or Vecepia. A good, solid Christian person can get away with anything in this game. And if you aren't one in real life, learn to become one for 39 days.

There are two more major issues to get out of the way at the start. Number one is your work ethic. For Pete's sake, do some work around camp. Do what the leader tells you. Do what the others ask. Volunteer to build things. Don't ever, ever slack off the first week in camp. As they say in Japan, the nail that sticks up the furthest gets hammered down first. Don't stand out as a slacker. Don't be unpleasant, assert your opinions, or be bossy. And for damn sure, don't be the leader. Just be. Just hang around, let the more dominant ones battle it out at the start. Once again, think Vee. She let Rob, Sean, Gina and Hunter fight it out, while she just sat back and waited. In fact, she used Sean all game as her smokescreen, which is another good idea if you can pull it off. Find a more dominant, vocal player, and hide behind them for a while.

Of course, everyone knows the key to winning Survivor is through alliances. And this last point is something I feel is very crucial. NEVER approach people for alliances. Let them come to you. And when someone comes to you, ALWAYS say yes. "Sure, sounds good, I'm with you." If you play it right, everyone will think you are on their team. And if you are the simple minded, good solid Christian you appear to be, you have it made at that point. And never, ever feel any shame or regret about changing alliances. Change as it suits you best. Adapt, shift, backstab, do whatever you want. But never admit to anything. Never get caught in lies, or in a situation where your deception could be tracked. You always have to have someone else to take your fall. You need a smokescreen at all times. So make sure you know all your fellow players, and have decent relationships with all of them. I'm sure Vecepia would agree when I say, keep your options open.

Remember that these people aren't your friends. They are pawns to use for your own success. You may think that way or not in real life, but you need to think that way in the game. Don't let personal feelings become involved. Once someone is of no use to you, forget them. In fact, it might even be best if you didn't learn everyone's name. If you just thought of them as "the guy with the tattoos" or "the lady with the red hair," it will help keep the idea in your mind that these aren't people, just pawns. Hey, it worked for Rudy, although I think he just didn't care what their names were. You truly do need to think like a sociopath to play this type of strategy. But hey, it would be fun, and more importantly, would be great TV. People in the audience would hate you, but I can guarantee you would be one of the stars of the show!

Ok, as for wreaking havoc within the game, there's plenty of little subtle stuff you could do. Lie about people, just make up stuff about them. Make up stories about how they are scheming too much. If you have "sold" your character, and they believe you are who you say you are, you can be trusted with this info. You can totally rip apart an otherwise solid game, much like Rob Mariano. Just start arousing suspicions, turn people against each other. Be creative.

Another way to be destructive is through the Tribal Council voting. How many times have we seen this: Seven people team up to vote off one isolated teammate. My general theory of this is that there should NEVER be a unanimous vote in this game. Not early on, anyway. It's too boring. People get too secure in their position if everything is nice and unanimous. You need a healthy dose of paranoia and suspicion around the tribe at all times. A perfect example is what happened to Lex. One vote is all it took, and it very nearly sent Boran tumbling apart. So the goal here is to find one person who you know can't take criticism well. One person whose world will be destroyed when they get a vote against them. And hit them with a surprise vote early on. It would be great if it were a leader, but anyone will do. Just make the first vote a 6-1-1. And my favorite part of the mystery vote is you have to do some acting. When the vote is pulled out, look surprised. Look around angrily. Look shocked. If everyone goes into the vote expecting unanimity, it will drive some of them nuts. I even have decided that if I do this, I will disguise my handwriting as female handwriting. Make it ornate cursive, add flowers and smiley faces. Do whatever you want to implicate someone else. I'm sure you could come up with some creative ideas. But the key here is that you do NOT want a nice, honest game around you. You want to make them sweat it out, because people will start making mistakes when they are under stress.

So basically, that's the Andy Kaufman strategy in a nutshell. Just make up a fake persona, sell it, make nice with everyone, and wreak havoc from within. Use people as pawns. Switch alliances at will. Stick with those in power. Do some work around camp. Profess your faith openly. Keep your mouth shut unless neccessary. Make the game your own private little joke. Do your best in challenges, although if you are too weak no strategy in the world will save you. Sonja Christopher would never get past the first or second vote, but for the most part, this strategy will work for anyone who has the guts to try it.


There are just two major obstacles to this plan. Two things that I think would stand in the way. The first being Jeff Probst. He is notorious for bringing up sensitive issues at TC. Such as "Rich, is there an Alliance?" or "John, are you confident as leader right now?" And you know Jeff sees the footage, he knows what is going on. The cameramen and crew all talk about the players. So at some Tribal Council, Jeff will more than likely bust out with:

"Mario, do you think everyone here is who they claim to be? Are people hiding their true personalities from the rest of the tribe?"

That's a tricky situation. And the only real plan I would have is to prepare ahead of time. Assume you will get this question at some point. And have your answer rehearsed in your head ahead of time. Immediately turn the question towards someone else, and deflect it from you. Say something like, "Well yes, I've had my suspicions about one or two of them. But I have to respect that they are who they say they are. An ethical person wouldn't try to pass themself off as something they are not, and I think we are all good, ethical people." That would probably work, and would be sure to piss off all the viewers at home. Just never get caught off guard by a Probst question, and you should be okay. Remember to deflect any accusation towards someone else. Make it look like he isn't talking about you.

The final obstacle to a possible win is the jury vote. And this is where I would say you dump the strategy. I would go against ALL conventional wisdom, and come clean. Do your best to tell everyone who you are, what you have done, and why you did it. The pure strategists will say you would be nuts to fess up so late in the game, but I disagree. I think that more often than not, the jury doesn't like either candidate, and are just looking to say they lost to a good player. John Carroll was clearly looking for someone to admit to playing the game when he asked his final question. I think they want to hear you say something along the following lines:

Yes, I made it here. It's because I'm the smartest, I played the best, and I kicked all of your butts. You are there and I am here because I fooled you all. I had this game under control from day one, and none of you even saw it. I don't regret a thing, and I only hope that you can admire what I have done.

Perhaps that's a little too direct, but I think you should explain how you won this game. I waffle over this issue from time to time, but I do think you need to come off as the winner in your final jury speech. And not as someone who is happy just to be there. No one likes a wishy-washy winner. I think it's what did Neleh in, she didn't believe she was the winner, and it showed.

So there you have it. Mario's strategy to win Survivor. The "Andy Kaufman" strategy. Or the sociopath strategy. You decide. But I'm pretty sure it would take you far in this game, ensure you lots of airtime, and make you a notorious villain at the same time. And hey, they wouldn't even have to fudge the editing to make you the bad guy. You could wear your black hat with pride, especially if you are a newly crowned millionaire.

Just one final comment I have to make. I'm sure some people may ask, but Mario, if you are going on Survivor someday, why would you tell us your strategy? What if someone swipes it? My answer is that is simple. More than likely, I will never end up on Survivor. I haven't had an opportunity to apply yet, due to our two small children, but someday I will. But the odds of ever ending up on the show are microscopic. I'm pretty sure if I ever got an interview, I could probably get through some rounds of interviews. But remember that the vast majority of tapes probably don't even get looked at. Your biggest obstacle is having them even look at your tape, because of the thousands and thousands of tapes that get sent in. So odds are, you won't see me on the show. So my reasoning for writing up my strategy in my column becomes more obvious...

Someone is going to use this strategy someday, and they are going to win. And I want to say, hey I predicted it in my column! My strategy worked! Someone used the Kaufman strategy!

Dank you veddy much.

Mario Lanza isn't really a sociopath, he just plays one on TV. He was one of the writers of the famed All-Star Survivor: Hawaii story this offseason, check it out if you haven't yet! His Power Rankings return next week.

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