1) One of the more fascinating books I’ve read during the last decade was Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers.
In it, Gladwell examines how exceptional people – Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, The Beatles – made the most of their talents. At the heart of Gladwell’s conclusions is what he calls the “10,000 hour rule”: to become extraordinary at a particular skill – be it computer programming, musical composition and performance, or writing novels –one must invest that much time in the task. To put that into perspective, that’s ten hours a day, every day, for over three years.
Here’s why I have Outliers on the brain after watching last week’s episode of Survivor: This cast is providing endless proof that there’s a big difference between people who have lived and breathed the game for years and those who tried to bring themselves up to speed in the months before they hopped on a plane to Nicaragua. While no one currently playing the game is truly extraordinary – none of them have put in their 10,000 hours – there is clearly a delineation between those who know what they’re doing, those who have an incomplete understanding of the game, and those who are hopelessly outmatched.
By the way, this is yet another reason that returning players have a massive advantage over newbies: they’ve invested countless hours thinking and talking about what they experienced the first [or second or third] go around. After all that investment, they’re simply better at the game. And of course, three days out there on the island is worth three years of mulling over strategic possibilities on our couches.
Speaking of mullers on couches, I had to wonder as I went down this rabbit hole: have I spent 10,000 hours contemplating, analyzing, and writing about Survivor since 2000? I’m not sure I want to know the answer to that question. But I will say this: the time I’ve spent carving out this column certainly paid dividends when I played in the DWSC back in August. There’s a clarity and a confidence that comes with knowing what might happen – and what to do when it does.
That said, I fully admit that I’ll never be an exceptional Survivor player – I’ll never know what the game is really like – unless I play the real thing. Until that happens, though, I’ll keep breaking down the games of those who are fortunate enough to do so.
This week, I’m going to look at the various levels of strategic awareness possessed by the San Juan del Sur players to see if there’s any method to what they’re doing…
… or if it’s all madness.
We’ll start with:
All you need to do is look at how Val and Jeremy handled Exile Island to know which of these two is the passionate Survivor fan. One of them emerged from Exile with a potential ally and an idol clue… the other headed back to camp with elaborate, desperate plans to lie to her tribe that she had not one, but two, idols. Jeremy knew what he was doing; Val only thought she did.
Here’s the thing: I like Val. If she had the same level of game savvy as her husband, she might have been worthy of all the pre-game Cirie talk. But I think it’s pretty clear that she got a lot of coaching from her husband once casting was interested in them, but couldn’t possibly process all of it. She had an idea what she was supposed to do and say, but lacked the deep comprehension of the game to make it all work.
Last week, I wrote that there was something about Val’s facial expressions that bothered me, and I’ve finally figured out what it was: she had the look of someone who knew that she was in over her head. If you don’t believe me, go back and watch her confessionals; all of her talk about playing the game and making big moves sound rehearsed, as if they were straight from her strategy discussions with Jeremy.
Now, I’m aware that she was dealt a HORRIBLE hand: not only was she socially hamstrung by being sent to Exile, but the idol clue that she got was vastly inferior to the one that Jeremy shared with Rocker. If anyone deserved an explicit idol clue, it was the first two players who ended up on Exile; instead, two people who were already in power positions in their tribes got to reap the rewards of isolation. Sure, Val was married to one of them, but a lot of good that did her.
The thing is, Val made a bad situation worse. Repeatedly. She had good motives for everything she did – and she thought about the moves she wanted to make, which is more than you can say for a lot of players over the years – but that doesn’t mean that her moves weren’t misguided.
Only someone with partial understanding of the game says, “Keith doesn’t seem like he’s 100% on board with the idea of working with Jeremy, so I’m not gonna talk game with him.” The better path: convince Keith that working with Jeremy is a wise decision (and take a leap of faith and show him the idol clue – that will build the bridge between to two tandems).
A novice shapes her strategy around saving herself AND someone like Jaclyn. A strategist knows when to throw an ally under the bus to buy herself three more days.
And when it comes to idols, an amateur fabricates one (which wasn’t much better than Ozzy/Jason’s stick), and then lies that she has two. A pro, on the other hand – one who is convinced she’s going home – searches in a spiral out from the well until she locates the idol. And if she has to lie about it, understand that six days in, there’s going to be one idol per tribe, not two. If you’re going to craft a lie, you gotta build a believable one.
So, too, did Val overplay her hand at Tribal: I loved that she was aggressive about outing Baylor’s duplicity, but that work needed to be done back at camp. Once again, the theory was sound, but the timing was off, and the delivery needed nuance. It was a Hail Mary hurled by someone who hadn’t spent enough time learning how to throw a spiral.
I do think that Val has the makings of an interesting Survivor player: her post-game interviews show that she’s an analytical thinker who is now more aware how the game really works. Indeed, I loved her observation on RHAP that when she returned from Exile, she had to depend on alliances other people had made, relationships that others had established, which included people she didn’t necessarily trust or want to work with. Something tells me that she’s learned a lot about Survivor since she played it last summer.
And you know what? She could have had a decent run THIS time around, if only she hadn’t been working with…
3) John Rocker
A quick Survivor SAT question:
Q: You’ve cut a deal with Jeremy to protect his wife, and when you have a chance to speak with Val, she tells you that she has two hidden immunity idols. Do you:
A) Refuse to work with her because Val’s just a girl
B) Bellow racist and homophobic statements about New York City
C) Tell everyone in your alliance about the idols so that they’re even more determined to vote her out
D) Sell some “Speak English” T-shirts
E) Convince everyone to vote out Jaclyn or Baylor so that you can get to the merge with Val and her two idols and the other idol that you just found
E is the only right answer… Rocker, of course, went with C.
Rocker’s desire to flush an idol makes even LESS sense when you think about it: If Jeremy finds out that you made his wife burn an idol, he’s never going to trust you. So all you’ve done is made an enemy – AND kept that enemy’s wife in the game. Brilliant.
I have to give credit where it’s due, however: Rocker did his homework. He knows when alpha males tend to be targeted, and he’s aware of how vote-splitting works. He shouldn’t have wanted to split votes, however, which shows that his knowledge of the game – while far more than anyone expected – doesn’t possess any depth.
But hey, who needs to understand the game when production is helping you find idols? (Yep, I went there.)
Ignoring conspiracy theories for the time being, though, let’s move on to…
Now here’s a guy who has put in a lot of those 10,000 hours. He may not be a card-carrying SuperFan (I can’t see Jeremy going to Reality Rally, posting on Sucks, or draping his wall with buffs from every season), but he’s been watching from the beginning and, if his confessionals are any indication, really THINKING about what he was watching. Any reasonably bright person who cares enough about Survivor to apply year after year – when he’s in his 30s – has undoubtedly started putting together the pieces of the social game strategy puzzle.
It’s pretty clear at this point that the producers want us to know this about him: otherwise, why include the confessional where he astutely breaks down the situation John Rocker is in? Jeremy knows that Rocker has an ugly history; more importantly, he knows that he can use Rocker as an asset or turn him into a target. And I bet Jeremy knows that the best possible scenario is doing BOTH: use Rocker and Julie as numbers/allies after the merge, and then use Rocker’s turbulent past to focus the alpha-hunting attention on the former closer instead of the fireman.
That said, I think Val’s boot is going to be a tough test for Jeremy. Is he going to take his wife’s ouster in stride, wait for an explanation, and show some patience? Or is he going to flex (or abuse) his power as the leader of an alliance to get revenge? Those of you who have watched the teaser for this Wednesday’s episode (and took note of Julie’s breakdown in the SuperTease) know the answer to these questions.
Still, I have to give Jeremy a ton of credit: he handled Exile with situational awareness and commendable diplomacy, he’s set himself up well for the first phase of the game (while doing his best to plan for the merge), and he’s being edited as the strategic counterpoint to the next guy I’m going to write about…
Certainly, I can’t be the only one who has his fingers crossed that the post-merge game will become a strategic battle between Jeremy and Josh…
How do I love thee, strategic newbie? Let me count the ways:
** I love that Josh refers to both Baylor and Rocker as “assets.” While I hope that he also sees them as people – because the game rewards empathy above all – the fact that he knows that goats and goons are useful AND is doing his best to use them puts him heads and shoulders above most of this cast.
** I also love that he’s taken note of the rhythms of the camp and is acutely aware of when certain people leave together. (Note to all future players: If you want the freedom to sneak off and strategize, you need to spend the first few days in the game establishing that you’re someone who leaves camp with everyone else in the tribe – to collect wood for the fire, to fill up water jugs, to grab coconuts – so that when you need to talk game and you walk away with an “asset,” only the paranoid and astute will worry.)
** He’s used his Tribal Council votes to save Baylor, a player who clearly wants someone else to do the thinking for her. Yes, Baylor’s confessional hints at a post-merge blindside (although it’s unclear if she will turn on him or if he will discard her), but at least in the short term, Josh is far better off with Baylor (and not Val) in the game.
And yet, there is trouble brewing: Val has said in post-elimination interviews that she’s surprised by Josh’s edit, that he was seen as far more strategically scattered during her six days in the game. I can see her point: Josh’s game-engine is red-lining as he veers dangerously close to “victim of his own mayhem” territory; indeed, there are moments when Josh reminds me a bit of last season’s winner… given that Josh compared Coyopa to a Broadway show at Tribal Council, I suppose it’s only fitting that his fever-pitch gameplay is eerily reminiscent of a guy named Tony.
And all of that is a long-winded way of saying this: after watching Survivor from the start, Josh understands the game far better than his tribemates (which is a big part of the reason why they’ve sought him out in the early going; alliances are often built on a foundation of “you seem to know what you’re doing”). He’s not pitching a perfect game – he should have figured out that a sixth vote would raise eyebrows and told Baylor he was going to throw a vote her way BEFORE they went to Tribal (when you have to say “this makes our alliance stronger” you know that isn’t the case, but you WANT it to be true) – but with this cast, Josh doesn’t need to.
One thing’s for certain: There are a LOT of “Josh Reaction Shots” throughout the episode, particularly at Tribal… which means he’s important. And he’s important because he understands the game. And he understands the game because he’s put in a lot of those 10,000 hours.
Speaking of 10,000 hours, I feel like I’ve invested that much time in Survivor already this season, despite saying that I wouldn’t obsess about San Juan del Sur.
I’m at over 2300 words and I’m only on #6?
Time to speed things up!
6) The Rest of ’Em (in no particular order)
Dale: I love how he planted seeds for Rocker’s eventual demise. Makes sense, given that he’s a farmer. I’m starting to come around on him as a post-merge factor (if he dodges some bullets in the next few weeks).
Jaclyn: Once the girls alliance crumbled with Nadiya’s ouster, she really needed to latch onto one or more of the men. Even if the Rocker/Alec/Wes Meathead Alliance is impenetrable, at least try and make some inroads with Josh and Dale (heck, you look a lot like Dale’s daughter!). Sticking with Val is the WORST thing she could have done. While I like that she spoke up at Tribal Council (although the edit has this horrible habit of letting us hear her speak when she’s not on camera), right after she outed the girl’s alliance, she should have turned to the guys and said, “I’ll work with anyone.” That she didn’t – and instead stuck with Val – doesn’t bode well for her chances.
Jon: Doing squats? Really? When you’re starving and dehydrated, this is what you do with your spare time? Survivor history is filled with players who were unable to leave behind the training frenzy that led up to the start of the game (I recall Kim Powers doing push-ups in Africa), but it still never ceases to make me shake my head. Not only should you be conserving energy, Jon, you should also not let your tribe mates see you squandering it. Oh, and Jon? Never put the flint where you can’t find it. It is literally the only item in camp that you need to keep track of.
Julie: Her choice of Jeremy was CLEARLY not random. Oh, she tried to pass it off that way, but she had her mind made up long before the Exile Island challenge. The only question is HOW long. Conspiracy theory time: In their press interviews, Val and Jeremy said they knew who Rocker was and wanted to work with him. Was this a pre-game Ponderosa deal? Wouldn’t surprise me. In the end, it won’t matter: whatever deal they made is obviously at an end.
Reed: Why was he the one picked to negotiate the “beans-not beans-fishing gear-Probst whose life is fine yells at us-just give us the damn flint and leave us alone, Jeff” deal? Jeremy’s the titular head of the tribe, and Jon is the one who lost the flint in the first place, so why Reed? Was it one of those “if you want to do it, step forward” but everyone stepped back sort of things? Did he draw the short straw? Or does Reed actually play an important role on his tribe? If this last possibility is true, why aren’t we seeing it?
Baylor: She was called out for playing both sides, and, despite not being happy with Josh’s decision to vote for her, she’s decided to stick with Josh even though she’s not sure she can trust him. The edit also made Baylor appear overwhelmed by, and non-responsive to, Val’s attack at Tribal Council. Not a great episode for young Baylor, her emotional manipulation of her mother during the immunity challenge notwithstanding.
Drew: When Jon did squats, Drew did push-ups. The producers also opted to include the moment when he cheered for the wrong team during the immunity challenge (which would have been easy to leave out). At this point, has he been shown in a positive light a single time this season? And when I think about the answer to that question, I wonder what it’s like to have played the game and watch week after week as the show tells your story. How does it feel to be mocked this hard? Does a guy like Drew think that maybe, just maybe, he was cast so that they could do this to him? (Remember, Survivor gives an IQ test – and intentionally casts players who don’t do well.) I have to admit, I’m starting to feel bad for the guy: he’s become a punching bag for the producers. Which is just mean, don’t you think?
Kelley, Natalie, Alec, Missy, Keith, and Wes: I’ve been told that they’re also on this show.
7) The Devil and the Divine are in the Details
Gotta pay attention to the small moments:
** When Natalie finds out that Nadiya has been voted out, two of her tribemates reach over to console her: Kelley, who hesitantly places a hand on Natalie’s shoulder and then pulls away… and Missy, who holds Natalie’s leg for an extended period of time. It’s a maternal moment, one that suggests that Missy is potentially playing a great social game.
** Wes took out Jeremy… and we’re not talking about this? The Jon/John face-off was given top billing, and rightfully so, but Wes took out someone who is both physically bigger than him AND is being showcased strategically. And yet we hear nothing about Wes’s big win in the aftermath. More proof that Wes isn’t important to our season-long story.
** Remember when Reed put his foot by his head? That’s the moment he lost the game. Not because he’s inconceivably flexible; it’s because I highly doubt they include this moment in a winner’s edit.
** Going back to last week, Dale pretty much has to use that medallion as a fake idol at some point, doesn’t he? Now that we know that the thing he took from the top of the well had NOTHING to do with the hidden immunity idol, what other story is there? I suppose that somewhere down the line – after a swap or after the merge – they could go on an idol hunt through everyone’s bags and find the medallion in Dale’s, but barring that, the only reason to show us that scene is to set us up for a fake hidden immunity idol moment, right?
** When Coyopa returned to camp after losing the immunity challenge, did you notice that the producers opted to include a shot of a tribe flag falling (and included a musical cue to emphasize it)? There is zero reason to include this if Coyopa is going to reverse their fortunes in the episodes ahead. Indeed, this is what you call AN OBVIOUS METAPHOR. To throw another literary term at you, it is also FORESHADOWING. Coyopa is going to fall down – get it? Fall down? Like the flag? Oh, those producers – so darn clever.
Okay, I said I’d speed up, and all I did was slow down. Another thousand words behind us. Time to dig deep and pick up the pace…
8) Brace yourself…
… because we’re going to get a heavily controlled tribe swap. There’s no way Probst and the producers want this season to turn into a total sausage fest (particularly because this flavor of sausage isn’t all that tasty), but with ten men and six women left, viable female targets on both tribes, and male-dominated alliances in control, that’s precisely what they’re looking at. Which means that the odds of “adaptive gameplay” – otherwise known as producer manipulation – are astronomically high.
9) Because I have no other place to really mention this: Flint vs. Fishing Gear.
This one’s easy: Flint.
Sure, Hunahpu could keep the fire going, even if the rainy season starts (although the game calendar suggests that Season 30 gets the rain). But they’re away from camp enough for challenges that you just don’t want to risk it. Who wants to be using Dale’s glasses on Day 35?
But there’s a more obvious reason to forfeit the fishing gear: it’s all but useless at this location. There’s a reason the tribes haven’t been given boats and why we haven’t had water-based challenges: there are no sheltered harbors where Survivor shot this season. The water is choppy. I would guess that it’s dangerous. Can you recall much fishing in Survivor: Nicaragua or Redemption Island (both which were shot in this same location)? Me neither.
I’m tempted to say that this decision was a no-brainer, but I just thought about it for about five minutes, so that would be a lie. Also, if it were truly a no-brainer – that even people with limited intellectual capacity would immediately know the right choice – then even Drew would have insisted that the tribe take flint. Instead, he kept pushing for the fishing gear. Sigh. His bad edit is RELENTLESS.
10) Probst Probe: More sexism!
I totally forgot to call out Probst’s comment from last week when he talked about how men are supposed to protect their women. In isolation, perhaps we could chalk this up to cultural norms, and I’m sure some wives and girlfriends feel this way. But as I wrote last week, Probst has a history of ripping into female contestants in a way he doesn’t with men. He added another gem this week by saying that no one could have anticipated that Julie would be able to defeat Rocker, despite the challenge CLEARLY favoring someone with a smaller build. Personally, I think it’s time the Executive Producer sits down with the host of the show and explains that he’s making them all look bad. Wait, what? It’s the same guy, you say? Oh. Never mind.
11) Fortunes rising: Missy
I think she’s playing a better social game than we’re seeing… and, depending on the numbers game at the merge, she could make a pretty deep run as an unthreatening mom figure who makes their harsh existence feel a little more like home.
12) Fortunes falling: Julie
It’s pretty clear from the preview that Jeremy gets mad at Rocker because Val got the boot, and decides to tell everyone on Hunahpu about Rocker’s past. The only reason for doing so would be to turn his tribe against Julie (which wouldn’t be too hard, given that she’s outside his alliance)… and that would explain the shot in last week’s SuperTease in which Julie is breaking down and saying something about John’s game affecting her own. Indeed, if Hunahpu were to go to Tribal Council, I would bet on Julie going home…
13) Prediction time: Coyopa loses again.
… but Julie ISN’T going home, because THE FALLING FLAG SAYS SO.
Assuming Coyopa loses again, there are three potential targets: Jaclyn, Baylor, and Dale. Any of them could go home for vastly different reasons: One’s the easy target, one was called out for playing both sides, and one is an age-outlier who could be viewed as a challenge liability. I’m honestly at a loss as to who will be voted out this week.
Would Probst have talked about Jaclyn and Jon’s relationship (as he did a few weeks back) if they didn’t reunite at the merge? Would the producers invest so much time in the Josh/Baylor storyline if Baylor was going home this early? Would we see Dale grabbing the well-top medallion if a fake idol didn’t come into play (and if that was happening this week, don’t you think they would be promoting it heavily)?
And lest we forget, the SuperTease said that someone was going to quit this season… so who the heck knows who’s going home?
It’s madness AND mayhem, I tell you.
Alright, I’ll guess: It’s Jaclyn, the easiest boot of the bunch.
That’s it for this edition of The Baker’s Dozen – 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