Editor’s Note: If you’re here looking for Andy’s pre-season take on the Survivor: San Juan Del Sur cast, please check back here on September 22nd. What follows is a Baker’s Dozen about Andy’s experience in the Durham Warriors Survival Challenge, a four-day Survivor-based event at Bob Crowley’s place in Maine. If you love Survivor (and why would you read a Survivor strategy blog if you didn’t?), and you’ve always wanted to play, then read on, oh SuperFan, read on.
1) Anyone who has read this column before knows all too well how much I want to play the game of Survivor.
Heck, it’s why I started writing the Baker’s Dozen in the first place (and why my Twitter handle is @GetOnSurvivor). If I could just prove that I understand how the game works, how my thinking went, eventually producers, former players, and casting would have to take notice… and my phone would ring.
Well, my loyal readers, I have news: I finally got to play Survivor.
No, I’m not on Season 29 (although friends of mine nearly were), nor am I on Season 30 (although another friend of mine made it to the final round of casting), but I did the next best thing: I participated in the Durham Warriors Survival Challenge.
Before you dismiss what follows (“If Probst ain’t involved, it ain’t Survivor”), let me throw some names at you:
Hatch and Sandra.
(These members of Survivor royalty conducted confessional interviews during the game.)
Sandra interviews Andy. Photo credit: Dale Porter, KillerImage.com
Coby Archa (Palau), Kathy Sleckman (Micronesia: Fans vs. Favorites 1), and Matt “The Beard” Bischoff (Caramoan: Fans vs. Favorites 2).
(This memorable triumvirate competed in this year’s DWSC.)
Terry Deitz (Panama: Exile Island), "Jimmy T" Tarantino (Nicaragua), and Michael Snow (Caramoan).
(They were on hand to support the event… Jimmy T, in particular, was heavily involved in the shenanigans.)
And Bob Crowley, winner of Gabon.
Bob Crowley and Richard Hatch. Photo credit: ?
(He is the host of, and guiding force behind, the DWSC.)
Hopefully, I’ve got you intrigued…
What these people have created – with the help of John Vataha, Steve Pickett, Bob’s family, and countless volunteers – is a four-day event that is the closest thing one can ever experience to the “real” Survivor.
And this year, I got to play.
2) Before I explain my journey, a quick word about the DWSC.
The Durham Warrior Project is a charity that raises money for military veterans to that they can camp at Maine Forest Yurts. It’s a great cause, and the entry fee for all contestants is a charitable donation, as are all funds players can raise.
Once I knew I was competing, I wanted to turn to you, my loyal readers, to help me raise money last spring, but the rules of player secrecy kept me quiet (this was to avoid the possibility of pre-game alliances). I appeal to you now and hope you’ll contribute to the Durham Warrior Project:
I’ve always written this column as a labor of love, never once considering Patreon or other avenues of capitalistic compensation, but I hope I can convince you to donate to this cause in my name, to help support Bob and his noble project.
And if we raise enough, they just might let me play again.
Ah, but I’m getting ahead of myself… before I can plan the future, I have to share the past.
So here, my friends, is what happened when I got to play Survivor.
3) I could go waaaaaaaay back and say that my training started when I began obsessing about the show back in 2001.
Or maybe it kicked into gear when I applied year after year after year but never heard back.
Or perhaps it began when I started blogging and taking Survivor strategy seriously.
But practically speaking, it all started when a Facebook friend named Lou told me about the DWSC. Apply, he said. I think you’ll like it.
Once I started looking into last year’s inaugural DWSC, I realized that Lou was the master of understatement.
I was gonna LOVE it.
After watching all of the footage of last year’s DWSC, I immediately went to the web site and filled out the application. The one question that I still remember clearly: Why do you want to do the DWSC? My response: For years I’ve been saying that I didn’t care about being on a TV show, and the million dollars didn’t matter; I just wanted to play the game. The DWSC was an opportunity – one that I never thought I’d have – to put up or shut up.
So, did I put up? Or should I stop talking about Survivor because of how badly I embarrassed myself? Read to the end of this column… and let me know in the comment section your opinion on the matter. :-)
Once I heard back from John Vataha that I was officially a contestant (only later would I find out that the competition was fierce; far more people had applied in year two), I realized that I had only four months to prepare.
Yes, “only” – four months is a long time, more than enough to gear up for a four-day event, but we’re talking about preparing to live out a dream here. Sure, most people would think, “Cool, I’ll hit the gym a bit more, maybe watch the rest of the season that’s on right now,” and call it a day. But I’m not most people – at least when it comes to Survivor.
I wish I could say that I handled my pre-game prep like a normal person. But that would be an unmitigated lie. Those four months included, among other things:
** Watching old seasons (Borneo, Australia, Africa, Amazon, Pearl Islands, and Gabon) with my family so that Survivor strategy was never far from my mind.
** Listening to Survivor Historian podcasts while I hiked in the woods and ran wind-sprints on the trails. Again, it was all about mindset – and high intensity interval training.
** Repeatedly viewing – and dissecting – the video from last year’s DWSC. I suspected that they’d keep roughly 75% of the challenges from year to year given the difficulty of logistics and the natural tendency to keep what works. As a result, I was not only mentally ready for the nature and pace of the challenges, but I also had intel I could share with my tribemates (which helped me earn their trust – or so I’d like to think).
** Practicing with a grappling hook and sling shot in my backyard… built a lot of fires out there, too. My neighbors no doubt thought I had lost my mind. I’m not sure they’re entirely wrong about that.
** Swimming at a town pool in my hiking shorts.
** Getting contact lenses (an odd truth that I discovered a long time ago: people open up to me more without the wall of glasses between us).
** Doing puzzles AFTER running around our neighborhood (the human brain processes things far differently when we’re stressed and fatigued).
** Practicing a LOT of yoga… for balance, endurance, and clarity.
I’m sure I did a lot of other stuff, too, but I think you get the idea. Did I go over the top? Without a doubt. But I didn’t want to have any excuses once I was inside the game. I needed to know that I had done all I could do to be ready.
And as that friend who got to the final round of casting reminded me, I wasn’t going to be able to compete physically with 20-something athletic guys, nor would I stand a chance against willowy and wiry contestants during balance and endurance competitions.
My ace in the hole was my brain – and I had to use it to get every advantage I could.
4) The most important part of my preparation, then, was mental: deciding what my strategy would be once the game began.
If there’s one thing this column is known for, it’s the Survivor Commandments, the endless list of “rules” that govern how the game works. All along, however, I’ve admitted that everything is contextual, and that first and foremost, one needs to be able to adapt. So back in July, I looked through the Commandments… and promptly threw them all out. What I needed was a simplified game plan.
This is what I came up with:
** Empathy is everything: Be authentic, connect with people on an honest and genuine level, and see them as they wish to be seen (and, later, understand how they see themselves within the context of the game).
** Be aggressive: My best buddy in all the world reminded me that I tend to be a timid poker player because I’m too nice. For me to do well in Survivor, I have to be willing to take risks. So that’s what I planned to do.
** Be the last to sleep and the first to rise: A lot can happen after the sun goes down.
** Find the idol(s): My original plan was to find out where the three tribe camps were, triangulate the spot in between, and go searching there the first night. Once the game got underway, though, I had to rethink things a bit; realized that they would want idols in play on Day 1. One way or another, I knew that my gameplay would hinge on having an idol or knowing who did.
** Above all, find the One True Person: Elisabeth and Rodger… Neleh and Paschal… jumping ahead in time and flipping the genders, Denise and Malcolm. Tandems, as I’ve written about before, tend to be formidable forces in Survivor, especially when the two people are different genders and at the opposite end of the age spectrum from one another. You need someone you can connect with, tell everything, and trust to the ends of the earth and the end of the game. As a result, I was looking to team up with a young, empathetic, trustworthy, level-headed, strategic woman. (An unreasonable list, perhaps, but that was the ideal I was searching for.)
That’s it. That’s the list (it’s a LOT shorter than the Survivor Commandments). The most important one of all was the One True Person… the rest, I felt, would follow from there.
Oh! Wait, I lied, there was one other thing I was thinking about as the game was about to begin. This year, there was going to be an audience watching the entire game, so I thought to myself, as I was being blindfolded in a barn:
Let’s give them a show.
5) The game began on Thursday evening with a canoe ride in Roundabout Pond…
… and that was the first, but not only, time serendipity played a role in how the game turned out.
(Side note: There’s a fundamental difference between serendipity and luck… I experienced a lot of the latter, and any savvy Survivor player will admit that luck is a key factor in how the game plays out. But serendipity is another thing altogether… it’s when larger forces are at work helping shape events that turn in our favor. That, too, played a role over the course of the weekend.)
Serendipity: One of the other players was late thanks to flight delays, so instead of rowing to our destination with a middle-aged Chicago native named Dave, I was paired up with a young teacher named Laura from Orland Park, Illinois.
Laura and Andy canoe in. Photo credit: ?
In true Survivor fashion, the two-mile canoe ride was conducted in silence. It was precisely what I needed to get my bearings: I could do the gender and age breakdown (six women, fifteen men; six players in their 20s, everyone else was older), pick out the Survivor celebs (Coby, Kathy, and Matt) and get an early, unimpeded read on who these people were.
The most important part of this silent journey, however, was the rhythm Laura and established with each other; we were in sync the entire way, and by the time we hit shore, we had, in some small way, begun to establish trust.
Little did I know that this would grow exponentially the rest of the time I was in the game.
There’s no need to go into great detail about the logistics of Thursday night – indeed, I’m going to do my best to avoid giving away a ton of DWSC production secrets for the remainder of this column – but what you need to know is this: We weren’t yet split into tribes, and we were left to fend for ourselves.
A lot of important connections were made that night, but to list them all would be exhausting, and as much as I hate to admit it, many of the memories are already slipping away. Looking back through the hazy prism of hindsight, however, there are some moments that stick out:
** Over the course of the first few hours, it was relatively easy to figure out who the real players were, and who was there for the experience. (The final boot order reflected this without exception.)
** There were a number of other teachers there (if you’ve forgotten or never known, I teach middle school English), and we quickly gravitated to one another (and as fortune would have it, three of us were later on the Bezo tribe together).
** Some threats were already coalescing: the players who ended up on Skog spent a lot of time with one another that night, most notably Clark and Ronnie.
** In my quest for the One True Person, I talked with both of the younger women, Becca (a pediatrician who was an All-American lacrosse player) and my canoe-buddy Laura… and by the end of the night, my sympathies were entirely in the latter camp.
The image that sticks out to me the most, thought, was a seemingly inconsequential moment involving two of the Survivor celebs:
** At one point that night, Coby and Kathy headed up the hill away from the rest of us to be interviewed by the camera crew. Kathy was resting her head on Coby’s shoulder as they walked, and as they disappeared into the darkness, I saw a puff of e-cigarette smoke rise over Kathy into the night. Those two look as thick as thieves, I thought. I can use that.
6) Given that this has always been a strategy blog, I won’t bore you with endless details about how my tribe – Bezo – was selected and how we did in the first day of challenges.
Here’s what might interest you, however:
** For various reasons connected to tribe composition (gender and athleticism, mostly), Bezo was considered underdogs right from the start. We proved them all wrong, though, by accumulating the most points over six challenges and coming in first on the day. More than anything, our tribe unity carried us through, and chants of “When I say BE, you say ZO!” and “Go meat!” echoed throughout the woods and rippled through the audience all day long.
The Bezo tribe. Photo credit: ?
** I could see the early warning signs, however. I knew the challenges were going to get more physical on Day 2, and I was worried we would struggle. The top end of the other tribes was stronger, and once they could start sitting players in challenges, we were going to be in a world of trouble.
** I knew that if we went with a predictable boot order on Saturday, I would soon find myself at the bottom of my tribe and might not make the merge.
Thankfully, that’s when I figured out where the immunity idol was hidden.
Once again, I find myself in a tricky spot: I don’t want to give away any production secrets. So let me put it this way: Late Friday morning, I figured out a clue to the location of the hidden immunity idol – and, when I arranged to have a moment alone in camp, I grabbed it. I was excited, of course, as well as relieved… but more than anything, I was greedy.
I knew that there was one of these in each of the three camps.
And I wanted them all.
The one I wanted the most belonged to the Skog tribe, which was full to overflowing with athletes. I suspected that many of them would get to the merge, so taking their idol would accomplish three goals:
** I’d have a second idol, which is a good and great and wonderful thing. (It’s also dangerous when people figure out you have them, though, so it’s a double-edged sword. But I’m getting ahead of myself.)
** It would sow the seeds of discord: The members of Skog would, I hoped, suspect one another of having the idol and not sharing it with the tribe.
** It would prevent the members of Skog from being able to pull off any idol shenanigans after the merge.
Once again, without giving too much away, I arranged to be alone with all of the Skog stuff, and thanks to a strategically place tarp, a gentle rainfall, and a raft of plausible excuses, I ended up with not one, but two, idols in my game bag.
Idols don’t do a player any good unless they’re used in some way: burning one at tribal is, if you ask me, the least effective use of an idol. Only slightly better is using an idol as leverage, as an implied threat to any who might consider voting you out. The best thing one can do with an idol? Use it to pull someone close, to assemble an alliance, to build trust.
Here I was with two idols burning a hole in my bag.
And I needed to lock down my One True Person.
So I told Laura about the idols.
The rest of the day is a bit of a blur, but I do know that I kept checking in with Laura, and we talked about the onion strategy (although I didn’t call it that): we would both continue bonding with our fellow tribemates, with an eye towards having a four-person majority alliance heading into Day 2.
Laura also said the seven most beautiful words in Survivor: “I will never write your name down.”
I said it back, of course. What surprised me – then and now – was that I meant it.
7) Friday night was a celebration: Bezo had won the day, we had a tent to sleep in, and we had chips and crunchy rice to eat.
We bonded, because that’s what people under extreme circumstances do, and we rehashed the day, came up with running jokes, and swapped stories about our lives. We talked about anything and everything, and it was beautiful and genuine and real, and I loved it.
Camp Bezo. Photo credit: ?
And yet, I couldn’t turn my brain away from the game (I wanted to so desperately, but that’s just not in the cards), and I was struck by how we were talking about all that exists under the sun, moon, and stars, but no one wanted to talk about tomorrow, about when the game would get real.
I knew it couldn’t last – and, I would later find out, it all started with a conversation between Laura and Jared.
Laura told me later that night that Jared initiated everything; on Sunday, Jared told me that Laura was the one who wanted to talk. In the end, I suppose it doesn’t matter which of these is true – although I’m intrigued by the possibility that Laura was exploring her options, while hoping that she was simply trying to get a read on him for the two of us – because later that night, we both agreed that Jared, above all, was dangerous.
By late Friday night, I felt I had Linda on my side (she said I had a “trustable face” – I’m telling you, this is what happens when I don’t wear glasses), and Muzzy and I had an endgame deal.
Linda and Kathy. Photo credit: ?
I had also connected with Kathy through humor; she and I are cut from the same cloth, masking insecurities by being “on” in group situations, and I think we were both relieved that neither one of us had to carry that load alone. It was genuine, all of that banter and all of that fun, but the harsh truth is that you have to use genuine things in the game of Survivor. Laughter is why Kathy was willing to help me on Saturday; it was real and it was honest, and it was a bridge that would lead us where we needed to go.
The game of Survivor, I have long said, has a lot in common with a hurricane: there are times when you’re caught up in gale force winds that are beyond your control, and others when you are in the eye of the storm watching the chaos and madness around you. As a player, you have a choice: let others dominate the game, allow the winds to carry you, and hope that you land on your feet… or do everything in your power to make sure that you, and those in your alliance, stand unscathed in the eye of the storm.
The first night, I could have been passive, allowed Jared to take control of the tribe, let him be the hurricane. In many ways, that might have been the safest path for me, given my skill set. But it turns out, that’s not who I was in Survivor. In the pre-merge game, I needed to be in the middle of everything…
… but I didn’t want to be there alone.
Remember when I said, “Last to bed and first to rise”? That came into play on Friday night: I left the tent, freezing and claustrophobic, and rebuilt the fire. Before long, Laura joined me, and we talked. For hours. About everything.
First, the easy stuff: teaching, coaching, family, friends.
Then the deeper stuff that campfires draw out of all of us: Our philosophies on life, relationships, and what it all means.
And only then, after we had built a foundation of trust out of confessions and admissions, did we talk game.
We agreed on a lot of things that night, and one of them was that Jared had to go.
At some point in here – I wish I could say precisely when – I explained to Laura that I had been hoping to team up with someone just like her. Indeed, it was eerie how well she fit my checklist; let’s look back at it, shall we?
** Young woman: Yep.
** Empathetic: Off the charts… humble and thoughtful and with an enviable ability to connect with others.
** Trustworthy: I went into the game hoping I could find someone to trust but fully expecting to be paranoid the whole way… by the time dawn was breaking on Saturday morning, though, I trusted Laura completely.
** Level-headed: They don’t get much more grounded.
** Strategic: We were a complementary pair in this department… I came up with various scenarios, and she’d reign me in when I was getting a little too crazy.
If Survivor is a hurricane, she was the eye of it, the place of peace and calm.
When I explained to Laura that I had been looking for someone just like her to team up with, she shared something that still sends shivers down my spine and brings tears to my eyes:
When I was getting ready to come out here, Laura said, my dad and I talked about the game, and he said I should find my One True Person.
One True Person.
The same words I wrote down in my pre-game planning notes but never once uttered aloud.
At that point, we were in this thing together to the end.
A quick recap: By the end of the first day, I had two idols, my One True Person, two other players who I felt were loyal to me, and a former Survivor player I clicked with who wanted to be voted out first.
Not bad… not bad at all.
And as I drifted off for a few minutes of fitful sleep as the sun was rising, I had one final thought:
I had all of the ingredients I needed for a blindside.
8) It all could have gone horribly wrong on Saturday morning, and at various points, it almost did.
As I had anticipated, the challenges got far more physical on Day 2, and after a brutal showing on an obstacle course, Bezo was going to have to vote the first player out of the game.
So that’s when I got to work.
If we were going to vote out Jared, Laura and I needed two more votes: I was certain I could lock down Linda on the way to Tribal Council, but I couldn’t fully trust Muzzy and Jersey to not tell Jared (we all loved the guy, and how do you not tell someone so charismatic and capable that his name is being kicked around?), so Kathy was the key.
We had a few minutes between the challenge and Tribal, and I used them to ask two things of Kathy: one, to keep speaking with Coby on the behalf of Bezo (we would need to work with the Awasos tribe if we had any hope of taking down Skog), and two, help me vote out Jared. She agreed, but under one condition: She HAD to go second – because coffee and cigarettes were calling.
Kathy. Photo credit: ?
As we discussed this, guess who should walk up to the two of us? Yep, Jared – I thought I had just blown up my game because I failed to look over my shoulder before opening my mouth. Kathy immediately covered and said that she wanted Dunkin’ Donuts coffee; I, on the other hand, blurted out that I was asking Kathy to talk with Coby one last time before she was voted out. Thankfully, Jared didn’t pick up on the fact when two people say totally unrelated things when you walk up to them, they’re talking about you…
I was equally fortunate that Muzzy – who was walking right in front of me as we made the trek to Tribal – didn’t hear me lock down Linda and confirm Kathy’s vote. It was messy and imperfect and I nearly screwed it all up… but somehow, I sat down on my stump, answered the questions from John Vataha (the Probst of the DWSC), and played up the cover story that Kathy was going home.
Rather than belabor the dramatics of what happened next, I’ll let the pictures do the talking (all credit to Jared, who posted these images on Facebook under the title, “Evolution of a Blindside”):
And with that, the DWSC had its very first blindside. Turns out I’m a pretty aggressive Survivor player. Who knew, right?
One other thing hit me as the crowd reacted to Jared’s abrupt departure:
Let’s give them a show, I had said at the start.
After Kathy’s promised ouster, the blindsides continued… first Jersey:
Jersey gets blindsided. Photo credit: ?
Muzzy's blindside. Photo credit: ?
Every time I had a reason ready to give those who were still in the game: Jared was gone because he had proposed a four-person alliance that didn’t include Linda and Muzzy, Jersey had to go because he was planning on working with Skog, and Muzzy had to go because Coby wanted to work with Linda, Laura, and me. Like all great lies, there was a lot of truth in each of these excuses. But the real reason underneath it all? I wanted – needed – to get Laura and me to the merge.
In an ideal world, Bezo gets there with four players, all of whom I trusted: Laura, Linda, Muzzy, and me. What ended up happening – thanks to one improbable challenge win and a bunch of predictable losses – was the best Worse Case Scenario: At the end of the day, only Laura and I remained.
Along the way, though, Skog had done us the kindness of turning themselves into an intimidating collective physical threat…
(… although thanks to some serendipitous conversations outside of a port-o-potty and on a ropes course, I had made some inroads with a cool Skog named Brian, a young Survivor SuperFan, and knew that his tribe wasn’t as united as it would seem…)
… and the four remaining Awasos were ready to fracture right down the middle.
9) On Saturday evening, after eleven of us merged into one tribe – Megezo – everything was calm and subdued and celebratory… until Sandra showed up.
For an hour or two, we consumed our merge feast – hot dogs, hamburgers, and beer – and indulged in some light-hearted banter. We set up camp, Becca started a fire, and we did our best to pretend that the game hadn’t changed. I was in full-blown observation mode, though, because after an entire day of being in the eye of the storm, I could hear the hungry winds howling.
What my eyes kept drifting to was our growing stack of firewood. Before the sun went down, the pile was massive, far more than we would ever need in one night. It was visual proof of what I already knew: players were using “wood-gathering” as an excuse to head out in pairs and small groups to make endgame plans.
The quiet chaos was predictable, at least in light of my partial understanding of the social dynamics in play, given who had made the merge. Although three tribes were involved, there were five separate factions: the three power players from Skog (Becca, Clark, and Ronnie), the Skog outsiders whom I suspected had teamed up (Brian and Matt), the competing tandems on Awasos (Steve/Ian and Coby/Jan), and the Bezo duo of Laura and me.
That’s a lot of moving parts.
With only one night to set any and all plans in motion, the power players were poised to make their moves…
… but before the plotting could begin in earnest, we were pulled away one by one to give confessionals to Sandra and Hatch…
… and after that, all hell broke loose.
If Friday night was a blur, Saturday night was an acid trip. I can’t remember the order of events, I don’t fully recall who I trusted and who I didn’t, and I cannot completely convey the ebb and flow of the endless nocturnal negotiations.
What I can tell you is this:
** Ronnie, Clark, and Becca were presenting a unified front, suggesting that I join them, take out Coby, and then use an idol to protect myself when it was just Bezo and Skogs left. I’ll admit that I was temporarily tempted to join forces with them until the Final 7, then turn against the big three with Matt and Brian. But they were too physically formidable, too likely to win individual immunities, and in the end, Laura and I just responded better to the Awasos players.
(Side note: Had I been a Skog, I would have feigned vulnerability to draw in new alliance members… for example, had Clark said, “Becca and Ronnie are joined at the hip, so when we get to Final 5, I’ll go with you and Laura,” he might have had a more receptive audience.)
** Speaking of Becca, she was working overtime to find out if I had two idols (I had to lie to her repeatedly when it was just the two of us by the fire), she tried hard to turn Laura against me (“He’s not sharing his idols with you!”), and she even made a light-night foray into the Bezo supply chest and my game bag in an attempt to find the two idols (at that point, I had given one of them to Laura – more on that in a moment). To a Survivor SuperFan like me, Becca’s scrambling was extremely impressive, if ultimately ineffective. She’s a player, that one.
Becca. Photo credit: ?
** I had a long walk-and-talk with Steve, a strategic force on Awasos who was a returning DWSC player. We talked about the idols (I ended up “confessing” to both Steve and Coby that I had two idols to hopefully draw them closer), and about working together once we hit the Final 6. We’re wired similarly, Steve and I, and in another world where we end up on the same tribe, we could have been the DWSC version of Stephen and JT (or, more accurately, two Fishbachs).
Steve. Photo credit: ?
** Coby and I made a pact to get to the Final 6 together, and all signs pointed to the two Awasos tandems turning on one another then, with Laura and me once again in the middle of the storm. It was clear that Coby was playing both sides, however, cultivating possibilities with fellow Survivor celeb Matt, so I couldn’t fully trust him. Coby used the perfect Survivor logic to put me at ease – “I’m only telling him that I’m working with him to keep him from turning on us” – and I ever-so-gently called him on it. In the end, we were both keeping our options open, but I’d like to think that had we hit the Final 6 together, we would have been willing to work with one another. But only he knows for sure…
Coby. Photo credit: ?
** One of the options I kept open: Working with Brian and Matt. Brian and I had a quick conversation early in the evening, but what really cemented our connection was yet another late-night fireside chat. After everyone else was asleep, Laura, Brian, Jan and I set Survivor aside (although it’s impossible to fully forget that one is playing a game) and, drenched in the dancing orange, yellow, and amber from the embers, got to know each other. Eventually, Jan drifted off, and it was just Brian, Laura, and me… and that’s a conversation that will stay locked away in my memory long after the game is gone.
Matt and Brian, with John Vataha. Photo credit: ?
** As the night grew heavy and dark, Steve, Laura, and I took a long walk down a winding trail and talked through what we could do at the Final 6. What ended up confirming for me that Awasos was ready to split was the arrival of Jan; he was checking in on our deliberations as if he didn’t trust Steve to have Jan and Coby’s best interests at heart. After hearing Steve’s pitch – and it was a good one – I ended up asking Steve if he could head back to camp so that I could talk with…
** … Laura, whose gut I trusted more than my own. She had been shaken up earlier in the evening by Sandra’s questioning – the Queen of Survivor is a world-class pot-stirrer, and she got Laura worried that I wasn’t as trustworthy an alliance partner as Laura would like to believe – and we needed to reestablish trust, reaffirm our alliance, and walk through the possibilities and pitfalls.
So that’s what we did. We talked. About the game, about her fears, about how this would all play out.
I assured her that Sandra was wrong about me – and I proved it by giving her an idol.
We walked through every possible permutation for the next day’s alliances and eliminations.
And by the time we returned to camp – several hours after we had left – we had confirmed what we had known almost from the beginning:
We had found the One True Person.
And that was going to carry us to the end.
10) If Saturday night opened up avenues, Sunday morning shut them down.
The morning began with a Survivor auction, which wouldn’t be all that notable – I was too nervous to eat – if Laura hadn’t refused to share her “Bob Bucks” to keep a message-in-a-bottle away from the Skogs (I assumed it would be a challenge advantage, given that there would be no time to find a hidden immunity idol). “I’m staying out of it,” she whispered, having just shared eggs and bacon with Becca.
My head spun: Was she doing as we had discussed, establishing bonds with the Skogs so that Awasos would believe what I had told them, that if they blindsided me, she would join forces with Skog? Was she cultivating jury votes? Was she distancing herself from me?
I took a deep breath and let it go. She was playing her game. And I had to trust her.
Hot on the heels of the auction was the gross food eating challenge, which was full of choking, groaning, and puking. I loved it. What sticks out most in my mind was when I threw fish eyes into my mouth and swallowed them down – only, one of them ricocheted off of my lips and fell to the ground. When I picked it up, it was covered in dirt and wood chips… I looked at it for half a second, said “&#@$ it!” and wolfed it down. If I’m not mistaken, Jimmy T smiled with pride when he checked my splinter-filled mouth.
Sadly, Brian was the first to fall, which ended the incipient alliance that had formed the night before. Laura and I had a choice to go with Awasos or Skog – Coby or Brian – and in the end, we went with Laura’s gut, our Magic Strategic 8-Ball.
The Skog Big Three were the next to go (if the art of Survivor is turning players into threats everyone wants to eliminate, I’d like to think I’m pretty good at it: Jared, Jersey, the Skogs)… but these eliminations were not without drama:
** In a variation on the coconut-chop slam book challenge, I was identified as the most untrustworthy player in the game, but also as the contestant most likely to play the real Survivor even if there wasn’t a million dollar prize. I take pride in both.
Andy's tile gets smashed. Photo credit: ?
** I burned an idol at Final 10 – even-numbered Tribal Councils aren’t usually danger zones, but all it would take was one Awasos tandem to flip and I’d go home with an idol in my pocket. I ended up with at least four votes (two votes weren’t read), so I think it was a wise decision. But still, I wonder. Not that it would matter in the end…
** Coby, too, played an idol at Final 10. I don’t know if he genuinely thought he was in danger or if this was a smokescreen to keep me from playing mine, but needless to say, it was exciting when two hands shot up when Vataha asked if anyone wanted to play an idol. As I think you can tell by now, I’m all about the drama.
** I made a critical error not sitting next to Laura at the Final 9 Tribal Council. She ended up playing her idol to protect me (the debate over who Laura and I should align with got heated, and she worried that I was the real target), when I was pretty sure I was safe. I thought I would need the idol at Final 6, so to be idol-less for the first time since early on Friday made me feel really vulnerable…
** After that Tribal Council, Laura and I had a moment back at camp which to me was one of the most important, critical, and meaningful of the game: I assured Laura that she had used the idol wisely (her motivation was to protect me, and how could I ever criticize that?), but that there was now a chance that I would get taken out and that she’d have to play on alone. At that point, she said something that still haunts me: “I can’t win this game.”
“Of course you can,” I insisted. “And the truth is, you already did. You won this game days ago.”
And then I had her walk me through what she would do in the event that she arrived at the endgame without me.
After Clark was taken out at Final 8 in the most brutal way possible – a surprise vote, with no individual immunity challenge – I was about to experience the dark side of serendipity.
Nothing ever happens in a vacuum, you see. The universe giveth. And the universe – and her cruel sense of irony – taketh away.
But I have only myself to blame.
A quick flashback:
As the DWSC approached, I ramped up my challenge-specific training. The one thing that I kept putting off: block stacking. I had any number of excuses: I didn’t have the right pieces of wood, I didn’t have a good surface on which to do it, it doesn’t really look that hard. Eventually, reluctantly, I rubber-cemented some playing cards together and experimented with different stacking styles. It didn’t feel like the real thing, though, so at some point, I gave up.
With a week or so left before I departed for Maine, my wife – who was not only indulgent but downright encouraging throughout all of this madness – told me, “Maybe keep trying with the cards – it’ll keep you from getting shaky panic hands during the challenge.”
If only I had listened.
My hands were shaking.
When the challenge was revealed – block stacking, of course – I wasn’t worried. Even if I failed, Matt was the target, and then things would get real at Final 6. But then Vataha announced a twist: “Whoever’s stack is the smallest after 15 minutes is out of the game.”
It was, as he would tell me later, a concession to the speed of a four-day game. I totally get it. But that really didn’t help me in the moment.
About eight minutes in, my stack fell. After thirteen, it fell again. And, despite my desperate attempts to throw together a last-minute structure, everything – my tower, my game, my hopes – fell apart.
Everything fell apart. Photo credit: ?
I wasn’t voted out. My torch was never snuffed. But I was headed for the jury all the same.
The worst thought of all? That at this point in the game, there were four Awasos, one Bezo, three challenges, and only one winner. And here I was, leaving Laura behind to fend for herself – I wouldn’t be able to help her.
I don’t want to feel that way ever again.
Could I have made it to the Final 2? I’d like to think so. The path was clear: At Final 6, convince Coby and Jan to take out Steve (who had been plotting against them) rather than me (the jury would have five Skogs on it, enough votes to win with a 9-person jury, and the Skogs weren’t fond of me and my idol-stealing ways). Then pull in Jan at Final 5 – a relationship that Laura had cultivated – to eliminate Ian and Coby.
At that point, depending on the outcome of the Final 3 immunity challenge, I take Laura, and Laura (I think – I hope) takes me. Jan, of course, takes Laura. Two out of three ain’t bad.
But all of that that is ego-driven wishcasting… the truth I had to accept in that moment didn’t allow for flights of fancy: the game was going on without me.
Once I joined the jury and I shook off the shock, I realized something: The truth was, I COULD help Laura.
The jury needed to see her through my eyes.
The prevailing sentiment around the jury tent was that Coby deserved to win, followed by Steve (if he could outmaneuver Coby) and Ian (if he could immunity challenge his way to the end).
Once Steve joined us – he was out at Final 5 – he succinctly summed up Laura’s chances: “You say that she played a great game – but when any of us wanted to talk strategy with Bezo, we had to come to YOU.”
Obviously, I had my work cut out for me.
There’s something liberating about being on the jury, however: you can suddenly speak the unbridled truth without worrying about it coming back to bite you. Sure, it’s truth with an agenda – I was trying to help Laura win – but it’s still the truth. And there’s a funny thing about honesty: People can feel it when you speak it.
And so I talked. About Laura. About the plans that we had built, the moves we had made. About the early morning assurances and the late night strategy sessions, and everything in between. I employed the power of the plural pronoun: never once did I say “I”… it was consistently, earnestly, truthfully, “We.”
In the end, the members of Awasos turned on each other, just as we had hoped. And, after recovering from an emotional crisis borne of pressure and panic, Laura won the final immunity challenge, and took Jan with her to the Final 2.
We asked our questions. They faced our fire. And then we voted.
And as it turns out, I lied to Laura back at the beginning: I would, in fact, write her name down.
But only as a winner.
Writing down Laura's name. Photo credit: ?
11) We’ve all heard a variation on the statement, “The more I learn, the less I know.”
Competing in the Durham Warriors Survival Challenge has opened my eyes to a lot of truths about Survivor, things I didn’t know before I played. I’ve written this column for years as if I know what I’m talking about… but I don’t, not really.
Among my enlightenments:
** I used to chide early boots for talking about what a life-changing experience Survivor was, despite being out there for only a few days. I understand what they mean now. I owe a lot of apologies. Mea culpa. Please forgive.
** When we watch Survivor on TV, it’s ever so easy to armchair quarterback things like strategic moves, alliance decisions, and the playing of idols. But when you’re caught up in the hurricane, you have to play the game that’s swirling around you, and concepts like Flip Zones don’t really hold up well in the crucible of competition.
** This is a game first and foremost about people, and I think I finally understand on a profound and palpable level why players make seemingly unwise strategic decisions. Blindsiding players you’ve grown to trust and love really, really HURTS… betraying someone who has had your back is nearly impossible… and taking someone to the end who can beat you (Colby with Tina, Woo with Tony) totally makes sense to me now.
There’s so much more that I learned during my four days in Maine… but I think that’s enough for now. Safe to say that all of my future columns will show a more nuanced appreciation for the game and those who play it. Thanks to the DWSC, there will be far more truth within my words.
12) Because this column is written for so many different audiences...
... for my fellow DWSC contestants whom I miss with a deep an abiding ache, for my loyal Baker’s Dozen readers who have been so supportive of my quest to be on the show, and for me so that not all of this slips away into the hazy mists of memory – this column is unbearably long.
But if you got this far, please indulge me as I implore you to do two things:
Donate to the Durham Warriors Project: http://durhamwarriors.org
And if you love the show as much as I do and you want to see if you have what it takes, apply (I’ll remind you about this again in the spring): http://www.durhamwarriorschallenge.com
13) To wrap this thing up, some final thank yous are in order:
To my wife Laurel, who endured my endless training, talked me through innumerable strategy discussions, and attended the event while 7 and a half months pregnant (now THAT’S love), and my 8 year-old son Bentley, who loved every minute of this adventure.
To Lou Oddo, for telling me about the DWSC in the first place.
To John Vataha and Steve Pickett for bringing the vision to life.
To the entire Crowley clan – and the endless ocean of volunteers – for pulling off the impossible.
To Kevin Thurber for being a brilliant tribe handler and cheerleader.
To Sandra, Hatch, Snowy, Jimmy T, and Terry for your monumental contributions to the competition.
To Kathy, Coby, and Matt for playing your hearts out.
To the members of Skog and Awasos for being brilliant and relentless and exhausting competition.
To the members of my beloved Bezo tribe – Kathy and Jared and Jersey and Muzzy and Linda and Laura – for your myriad kindnesses inside and outside of the game.
To Jared for your forgiveness.
And finally, a heartfelt thank you to Laura…
… our Sole Survivor…
… the eye of the hurricane…
… and my One True Person.
(Top) Andy and Laura. (Bottom) Laura, the winner of DWSC 2014. Photo credits: ?
That’s it for this edition of The Baker’s Dozen – keep your eyes peeled for my Survivor: SJDSBvW2 preview – and if you’d like to keep the conversation going, leave a comment below!
Andy Baker is a long-time, but definitely not long-winded, Survivor blogger.
Follow Andy on twitter: @SurvivorGenius