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A Nerd’s Guide To What Jeff Probst Won’t Tell You: How To Win ‘Survivor’

Filed by KOSU News in Art & Life.
February 15, 2012

Tonight, Survivor — which premiered in the summer of 2000, to concerns about Lord Of The Flies behavior and the highly publicized but ultimately ho-hum eating of rats — begins its 24th season. For its fans, rattling off winners and runners-up is a bit like being able to name all the elements of the periodic table (without singing): a sort of mastery that will never, ever be needed, making the decision to acquire it (or the inability to avoid acquiring it) all the more impressive.

Well, perhaps not “impressive.” Perhaps “noteworthy.”

Among the winners are those who won quietly and those who won loudly; those who are forgotten (such as Aras, the yoga instructor) and those who are remembered both with regret and with enthusiasm, depending on whom you ask (such as Parvati, the “foxy boxing” participant whose last name actually is “Shallow”). One woman — the marvelously crafty, earthy Sandra Diaz-Twine — has even won twice.

After 23 completed seasons, it’s clear that not everyone wins according to the same set of rules, but it’s equally clear that some things are a good idea (knowing how to use a flint to make fire before you show up) and other things are not a good idea (bossing everyone around on the first day; playing a musical instrument and/or singing songs).

Here is a secret I will share, as someone whose professional assignments once included writing about Survivor after every episode from September 2003 to March 2008: Those who have watched the show for all or most of its run are burdened with a complex knot of actual understanding of how it works, which they are hesitant to share with the uninitiated lest they appear to be moderately insane, but which they are wont to share with each other over hushed lunches and surprisingly detailed e-mails in which they debate such matters as the final jury, the “hidden immunity idol,” the importance of “doing work around camp,” whether romantic couplings are wise, whether it’s better to be a leader or a follower, and many other matters that are ignored by those who have spent the same period of time watching something on television that is not so packed with spectacular interpersonal drama, such as General Hospital.

But it is time for all this unnecessary knowledge to see the light of day. There are some rules that should be followed by all contestants from the firefighter to the nurturing mom, from the roller derby participant to the rocket scientist. I live in fear that I will never have the opportunity to pass this knowledge along to future generations of potential Survivor contestants, and so here it is.

This is how to win Survivor, and it is not a joke — except, of course, in the sense that knowing how to win Survivor is its own cruel joke.

1. Never mistake the length of a contestant’s run for how close that contestant came to winning. (The “Goodbye, Sully” Rule.) The most foolish thing that host Jeff Probst says every season is that when there are, for instance, four people left, each of them has a “one in four chance” of winning. This could not be further from the truth. There is almost always someone who has no chance whatsoever of winning, and very often, that is the only reason he or she has not already been dispatched.

To understand that, you have to understand that Survivor proceeds in two stages. First, a certain number of people made up largely of the weak, the undistinguished, the overly shifty and/or overly intimidating, and the massively annoying are weeded out. This gets rid of about half of the group. Then, it shifts to a game where every player wants to avoid being voted out and wants to leave the exiled contestants who will eventually decide the winner an ultimate choice between herself and someone no one likes.

Thus, if, when there are five people left and you will eventually battle whomever remains in a popularity contest, you have the chance to vote off Captain Sully, who landed his plane on the Hudson, or Khloe Kardashian, who did not, you should vote off Sully. This does not mean Khloe has a one in four chance of winning, and it does not mean she played a better game than Sully did. So when you look at past seasons for guidance, do not be distracted by how long everyone lasted. It is an almost meaningless distinction.

2. Do not, under any circumstances, be the person in charge of handing out chores or dividing food. (The Alice Rule.) It has always been my feeling that the Brady children secretly resented Alice. She was, after all, in charge of cutting off their access to snacks, one assumes, and had they the opportunity to vote someone out of the house, I believe she would have been the first to go. (After Jan, obviously.)

The same is true on Survivor. Controlling food makes people irrationally angry when they have been subsisting on hermit crabs for a couple of weeks, and being the person who directs the building of the shelter only works if you are extremely knowledgeable, skilled, and working harder than anyone else. As frustrating as it undoubtedly is to see the season’s supply of tattooed bartenders lounging under a coconut tree while you make bed mats out of leaves, you must restrain yourself.

3. Form alliances with the right people. (The Rule Of Amber.) The alliance with the best chance of lasting is an alliance in which everyone in it has a reasonable chance of believing that they can beat the other people in the alliance. This is because nobody is playing to let anyone else win, so in a four-person alliance made up of three well-liked geniuses and a despised outcast, the outcast might seem to be the most imperiled, but the geniuses should realize that the outcast, unless he’s very, very stupid, has no reason to stick with them, because he knows perfectly well that he is at the bottom of the pile.

Thus, while it sounds counterintuitive, in order to form a successful alliance that will not break, you must align yourself with people who plausibly believe they can beat you. It is a popular, but erroneous, Survivor myth that the reason why Rob Mariano and his then-squeeze and now-wife Amber Brkich stayed together was the fact that they were speaking the universal language of Kissing Without Brushing Your Teeth, which you must admit is a very intimate thing. While this is sort of true, the actual reason they remained together was that he reasonably believed people might want to reward his more aggressive play over her quieter approach, and she reasonably believed people might find him so swaggeringly obnoxious that they wouldn’t vote for him. Therefore, neither one of them had a reason to bail out. She beat him, four votes to three, but it could easily have gone the other way, which is why they were successful.

4. Tolerate risk appropriately. (The Rule Of Gregg With Three G’s.) One of the best strategic moves in Survivor history happened during the Palau season (the show’s tenth), when the powerful pair of Ian and Tom realized that a plan had been set in motion from within their alliance for their buddy Gregg to double-cross them. Without getting into the fine points, which involve math, they had to try a risky strategy that still left them a significant chance of being burned, but that was better than waiting around like gazelles on the savanna. They carried it out, and it worked.

But what they did that Survivor contestants often don’t was this: they correctly counted the risk of doing nothing. Very often, if people see the reality-show equivalent of a truck coming and they have a choice of standing still in the road or jumping into a ditch that might or might not contain poisonous snakes, they stand in the road and hope the truck swerves, because it sometimes does, and because who is going to jump into a potential pit of poisonous snakes? But if the chances that the truck will swerve are lower than the prevalence of snakes, you must jump, even though people tend to overestimate the risk of acting and underestimate the risk of not acting. Sometimes, a move is required.

5. Don’t get trapped in dilemmas. (The Rule Of What A Dilemma Actually Is.) A “dilemma,” in fact, is trying to choose between two things. Not many things — two things. Since the advent of Survivor alliances, people tend to think of themselves as having two choices. You can go with one alliance, or you can go with the other alliance. You can do this thing, or you can do that thing. This sometimes takes the form of calling yourself the “swing vote,” and it almost always results in you being immediately booted, because whatever you do, nobody likes you.

Smart people remember that if there are eight people left, no matter what everyone is telling you, there aren’t two choices of who you can vote for — there are seven. (Well, six, since someone probably has immunity from the challenge.) Flexibility is a virtue. Maybe every vote doesn’t have to be All Of Us versus All Of You. Maybe even if it is your group versus another group, you don’t want to vote for the most obvious person on the other side. Consider everyone. (This is also The Rule Of Edgardo, but explaining why that is would take another ten paragraphs.)

6. Don’t be a jerk if you don’t have to be. (The Imagined Superfluousness Rule.) There is a tendency for people to become comfortable and therefore mean. Survivor history is littered with the figurative (figurative!) bones of those who assumed that everything was swell and went around earning the enmity of those they perceived to be unnecessary. One of the clearest ways in which Survivor really does echo the rules of society is that you never know when the person you step on today will be the person whose help you need tomorrow.

It does not require an “I’d like to teach the world to sing” mentality to be generous when you can be; you can be generous out of purely mercenary desires. Strategically speaking, there has never been a time when it has been to anyone’s benefit to personally attack, humiliate, or put down anybody, and there has never been a time when it has been a good idea to lie around camp waiting for everyone else to feed you because you presume that you are in charge and they can’t do anything about it. (This happens with shocking, stupid frequency, and it has more than once contributed to the decision of someone on the alliance of laziness to decide to switch to the alliance of hard work and good character out of sheer distaste for this behavior and the presumed fear that one’s family will disapprove.)

7. Count, count, count. (The Five Is More Than Four Rule.) The great frustration of the first season of Survivor is that an alliance of four people managed to knock off everybody else, largely because everybody else decided that the moment to act in their own defense was right after they became hopelessly outnumbered.

For the sake of your future sanity and your access to funds, count heads frequently. If you are going to undertake an act of self-defense, you want to do it when you are not already defeated.

8. Instead of a figurative totem pole with someone at the bottom, use a Mobius strip. (The Nobody Loses Rule.) If you are a good player, you will probably wind up on an alliance, because that’s how it’s generally done. If you arrange an alliance with a clear outcast — in other words, there are five of you, but four of you mistreat your fifth — that person has every reason to jump ship. This is true even if four of you are obviously BFFs (that’s Best Friends For as long as it’s advantageous) and the fifth is left out. You must endeavor to make no one feel that they are at the bottom.

How do you do this? You do this with the power of the super-secret sub-alliance. Let me explain how it works. This is where it gets particularly brutal and SAT-like. Please begin holding your head and rubbing your temples. It must be explained.

Suppose that you are person A. You are in an alliance with persons B, C, D, and E. Your actual Superalliance — the person you have decided you actually want to go all the way to the end with — is person B. You, of course, tell this to Person B, because it’s true. (Well, not because it’s true. More like and it’s true.) You then tell person C that unbeknownst to persons D and E, your actual Superalliance is yourself, person B, and person C, and that once the alliance’s business is done and it’s just the five of you, you will dispatch D and E, and A through C will triumph. Of course, person C is sworn to secrecy about his own superior position, which is the easiest thing to get people to shut up about, because they can soothe their need to gossip with smugness.

Meanwhile, you tell persons D and E that your Superalliance is with the two of them, and that you will be dispatching B and C first, but that of course they must not tell B and C. Their superior position is a secret! You should also tell D and E that you have sworn your allegiance to B and C, but that you are fooling them, and they shouldn’t worry if B and C seem unsettlingly confident. This is in case there is cross-talk.

No one in this arrangement believes that they are on the bottom. Everyone believes that at least two other people are worse off than they are, and that keeps everyone together until, ideally, only the five of you are left. At that point, you dispatch C, which alarms no one, and you are down to four, which is about as good an outcome as your alliance can promise.

In short (ha!), an evidently linear alliance will die, because the end of the line deserts. A multidimensional alliance that goes round and round has reason to survive.

Whew.

9. Understand the power of narrative. (The Storyteller Rule.) This is the single most important rule that applies if you happen to make it all the way to the jury vote. There are two things to keep in mind: (1) No matter what their question, no matter what criteria they say they are applying, nobody votes for someone they dislike to win a million dollars over someone they like, period, full stop, and in the vast majority of cases, they will vote for whomever they like more or dislike less, and that is the main reason they vote as they do. (2) In close cases — such as when they dislike both people for different reasons, which isn’t at all uncommon — people generally vote in order to create a narrative of their own defeat that is comfortable for them.

What does this mean? Some people are perfectly happy to lose to a better player. These are the “honorable defeat” people. They will vote for whomever made the more aggressive, noticeable strategic moves. Some people are only willing to lose to a certain demographic — they are okay with losing to men, but not to women, or vice-versa, or they are okay with losing to an unpleasant person with a family but not an unpleasant young, single pharmaceutical salesperson. Some people cannot bear the thought of losing to someone who outmaneuvered them and would rather choose the person who did nothing.

It is not your task to satisfy all of these people, because you can’t. But all other things being equal, it is your task to figure out other people’s thought patterns and maximize the number of people who can live with themselves after voting for you.

10. Do not be sucked in by the host. (The Thumb On The Scale Rule.) Back in the day, Jeff Probst was a mostly neutral host who teased out answers to questions in an effort to make the game more interesting. He is now a fairly open advocate for the players he likes, and he not infrequently presents arguments at tribal council that this person or that person should be voted off. He likes to phrase it as, “Does it worry you, Person I Don’t Like, that they’re going to think [argument that you should be voted off]?” This is basically always his own argument, not a hypothetical argument that might be made by someone else.

When you realize that the host is not a neutral observer but an advocate for whomever he’s rooting for — who is almost always whichever man he considers most rugged — you have to realize similarly that if you are not that person, he is trying to trap you. If there is a rugged man nearby, he is that man’s attorney. Simultaneously, he is trying to make tribal council exciting, which has absolutely nothing to do with what you want.

Don’t be afraid of being bad television, is what I am telling you.

These are the fundamentals. Everything else depends on your particular game, and every rule has individual exceptions. But for the most part, these are the rules that will increase your odds of winning rather than decrease them, and their opposites are the behaviors that have historically taken down the unwary. [Copyright 2012 National Public Radio]

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