With 34 seasons of Survivor in the back of our minds, we can safely say that we have learned some definitive things about the show in that time. Everybody knows now that alliances are a necessary to win the game. There is no doubt that each season, the cast will have some twists thrown at them to keep them comfortable. Players who don’t know how to swim are going to have a bad time out there. These are all common knowledge facts about the game of Survivor. In terms of deciding the winner we have also learned that above all, the jury needs to feel good about giving you the win.
Yes every season we hear talk about who played the best game and made the best moves. Ideally that person wins the game every time on the basis of their strategy. Speaking purely in terms of Game Theory, it should be a lock. Looking at things in that way is purely logical and strips away the humanity involved with Survivor. If someone makes it to the end by swearing on his kids, flipping alliances constantly and berating the jury as they leave it doesn’t matter if they played the best game; they won’t win.
Where players have to be careful is that they don’t want to appear too nice either. Trying to claim that you feel bad for voting out the jury, a necessity of the game, and that you tried to play as honorably as possible could also piss off those voting for the winner. Nobody wants to hear about how much integrity you played with when they know they are sitting on the jury because of moves you made.
That’s why jury management is tricky and completely situational. Each season is going to have a different jury that judges the game on their set of criteria. Within that jury, each individual person is going to have his own way of deciding who should win. Try as you might, nobody is ever going to come up with a perfect formula for how to send someone home while gaining their vote.
Players who do best with the jury are those who know how to make people like them. One of the all-time greatest jury answers was in Survivor: China when Jean-Robert Bellande asked Todd Herzog: why would you blindside me when I wasn’t your biggest threat in the moment? Knowing full well that Jean Robert is an egotistical player who likes to talk about himself, Todd turned the question around on him.
“You started to strategically place ideas in peoples’ heads, which is what I wanted my job to be. And when you had approached me about blindsiding James, I was like Oh no. He’s catching up. So who then becomes the biggest threat to me? You. So then what do I have to do? Turn it around on you, who is an extremely great strategic player in your daily life. I had to get rid of my biggest strategic threat. Who was you.”
In one fell swoop, Todd complimented Jean Robert for being good at strategy in his real life, told him how great he was at the game and explained that it was why he had to go. He made him feel good about himself and then lowered the boom on it him. It was so effective that for the first time all season, Jean Robert was literally speechless. In one perfect answer, Todd stole a vote he was never going to get by knowing how to appeal to the person on an individual basis.
On a recent Rob Has a Podcast episode, John Cochran talked about his strategy for the jury. Cochran had one of the best Final Tribal Councils in Survivor: Caramoan even though he would have likely won against Dawn Meehan and Sherri Biethman if he had taken a nap through it all. On the podcast, Cochran revealed another brilliant way to curry favor with the jury without pissing them off. He said he claimed he was the best in the game at timing, something that can’t really be measured. It was a calculated decision because claiming to be the best at challenges or strategy could make a juror who thinks they are the best in that category angry. Nobody is going to claim they are better than anybody at timing.
That is just two examples of brilliant minds figuring out ways to appeal to the jury. Todd and Cochran are both in the pantheon of great Final Tribal Council players. This is especially true with Todd who likely turned a loss into a win with his answers. That is something that is not often done on Survivor.
Of course, for someone to flip the jury that late, someone also has to turn in a pretty bad performance which brings us to Amanda Kimmel. She is the living example of someone who comes in to the final tribal council looking to apologize. Two seasons in a row, Amanda was part of the dominant alliance that got her to the end. Twice she was in a great position to convince the jury to give her the win. Twice she completely flopped on her face.
Not understanding that the jury knew she had a big hand in booting them off all the island, Amanda tried to play the emotional card. She was probably truly burnt out from the rigors of the game, especially in Survivor: Micronesia, but she was still completely incapable of reading what the jury needed from her. They wanted to see agency in her decisions and a bit of ruthlessness in owning her moves. Instead they got Amanda saying how much voting people off had hurt her emotionally and how sorry she was if they were angry. In China, she was sitting next to Todd who was completely owning every backstab he had made, backstabs that Amanda was a part of. She should have realized she had to do the same thing but she didn’t and it cost her $900,000.
Like I mentioned earlier, there is still humanity in the Survivor end game and emotions will still come into play. If Amanda tried to be too nice, Russell Hantz is her polar opposite and didn’t try to be nice enough. Russell and Amanda are interesting analogues. Both played back to back seasons in which they were essentially unknowns in their second season. Both made back-to-back final tribal councils because of their in-game strategies. Amanda relied strongly on the strength of a majority alliance, Russel played a cutthroat, below the belt game. Neither won either of their finals.
Where Russell went wrong was in refusing to admit feeling any sort of guilt for abusing people’s trust. There is owning your game like Todd or Chris Daugherty did and there is rubbing it in the jury’s face like Russell did. Constantly telling the jury you outplayed them and that they are sitting there because you aren’t as smart as the finalist is probably not the best way to cater to the people who could give you the million. Russell saw things as black and white. I voted you out and outplayed you, therefore I deserve to win. What he didn’t see was the grey area which is where the humanity of the game resides. Were he playing against computers programmed solely to judge who made the best strategic decisions, Russell would be a two-time winner.
The problem for Russell is that is not who he was playing against. It’s why instead of being the series’ only two-time winner, his nemesis Sandra Diaz-Twine is. Both times she got herself to the end with people she knew the jury would not feel comfortable awarding the win to. This brings us all the way back to the original thesis and there’s a reason for that. It’s been proven time and time again that jury management will never be set in stone and that each season’s jury will vary. The only constant will be that one argument: the jury needs to feel good about giving you the win. So if you ever find yourself playing Survivor, above all else remember that sentence and play the game in a way that will lead you towards that goal. If you can manage that, I can guarantee you you’ll be a million dollars richer and then maybe you can send me a 10% cut for the advice.