The Golden Ticket - Ben Martell's recaps

Baseless speculation


One of my favourite times of year is late June, when the NBA finals reach their climax and then we follow that up with the NBA draft.  We are heading into a great unknown – 60 picks out of hundreds of players eligible for the draft – and yet many people sit down before draft day and make their own mock draft predictions of how the draft is going to go.  They are never, ever, right.


Every year I wait with bated breath for the mock draft of basketball analyst David Aldridge.  In part because he is my favourite journalist to read at any time, as he doesn’t let the fact he works in basketball stop him from talking about the world’s real social issues.  And in part because he understands how ridiculous predicting a complex order of events with no information actually is, and so it’s always funny to read the preamble to his draft.


Aldridge starts his mock drafts by reminding everyone of the precise value of a mock draft.  In 2014, Aldridge said that “there is nothing dumber, more a waste of our collective brief time on this planet, than a mock draft.  The utter folly of trying to guess what any group of people will do makes this an exercise in futility.  But you like these things, so there’s that.” He then proceeded to go zero for thirty in his guesses.


Aldridge understands both the complete pointlessness of, and human proclivity for, baseless speculation.  The time we spend thinking about what might be builds our excitement for what actually will be.  That’s certainly true for me.  I love a good Survivor preseason, that time when you can imagine how the season might play out and anything seems possible.


This is why, in this column, I’m going to engage in a large amount of baseless speculation.  Along with picking who is going to win, I’m going to try and predict how everyone else does, and why; who early alliances are going to be; who is going to find idols, and some other things besides.  So, it should come as no surprise that this blog is LONG.  As in, more than 15,000 words long.  Go get a glass of wine. Tweet me if you read the whole thing!


Then, at the end of the season, I’ll look back and see how I did.


Please note that I am SPOILER FREE, and wish to stay that way, so if there are spoilers out there, please don’t put them in the comments.


However, some things are fair game and not spoilers in my book.  That includes the eight contestants revealed at the end of Millennials vs Gen X, and public statements made about Game Changers by Jeff Probst.  So, if you do try to avoid these kinds of things completely, I warn you – some of my speculation takes them into account.


So, what’s on the ticket for today?

  • Why Survivor: Game Changers?
  • A look at the Mana tribe
  • A look at the Nuku tribe
  • A bit of hole plugging
  • Some final predictions


Why Survivor: Game Changers? (Or, is it really Survivor: Big Moves?)

Game Changers


An immediate criticism of this season from the moment the name was announced was ‘how are these people game changers’?  There are a small handful of people who genuinely changed the course of Survivor, but most of these people could hardly be said to have changed the game.  In fact, quite a few of them didn’t even change the course of their own season.


So, it was helpful to hear Jeff Probst’s definition of ‘Game Changers’, which clearly not only applied only to how people affected their own season (not the show as a whole) but also applies to people who, in fact, didn’t change the game.


Here’s Jeff’s explanation to Dalton Ross:

“So when we were thinking about things that we hadn’t done yet, we have not celebrated the type of player that is willing to take a risk in order to change the game, and that can mean somebody who made a really big move, or that can mean somebody like Tony who changed the game with his aggressive play, and it paid off. It can also mean somebody who makes aggressive moves and it backfires. It doesn’t matter to us whether or not the move worked. It only matters whether you were willing to do something risky in order to further your game.”


The last two sentences are particularly important.  It doesn’t matter whether the move worked, just that you were bold enough to do it.  Suddenly the season, and its cast, actually makes a lot of sense.  This isn’t Survivor: Game Changers, it’s Survivor: Big Moves, Jeff’s favourite phrase.


I intended to look at how each of the cast members changed the game, but given that it appears the season is much more about big moves, I’ve instead taken a look at what the various players ‘big move’ has been throughout their Survivor career.


Also of interest is how Jeff described the season playing out to Dalton.  Here’s an extract:

“I anticipated a bloodbath out of the gate, and instead, it’s more like the movie Jaws. It felt very much like all 20 people were looking at each other saying: We know the shark is in the water. When’s it going to hit the boat? When’s it going to attack the boat? And so it has a very uneasy feeling in the beginning as people aren’t sure what to do, which is really interesting because, on the surface, you would think these are game players.”


This has me excited.  It suggests that, at least, the first few people who go home (or most of them) are not big names ready for big moves, but instead potentially consensus votes and culling people who don’t quite fit the mould.  There are a couple of big names who look very poorly set up on their initial tribes, but perhaps this suggests that that they might manage to survive a little while as the big fish team up and circle around each other. 


If this means that players like Cirie, Sandra, Ciera and Tony are going to hang around a while, I’m all for it!  Since I’m interpreting it that way, you’ll see this reflected in how I reconcile my predictions with my odds (for instance, I give Ciera a 10% chance of making it to the merge because the odds seem heavily stacked against her.  However, my ultimate prediction is that she makes the merge anyway.)


One last note on the name of the season – the full name of the season is apparently “Survivor: Game Changers – Mamanuca Islands.”  You may notice that I tend refer to the season by its location name title wherever one exists (Panama, Micronesia, Cagayan, Cambodia etc).  It makes it easier to distinguish in the long run.  So, I’m leading the charge for referring to this season as Mamanuca Islands.  Who’s with me?


A look at the Mana Tribe (aka, the tribe of TV-friendly strategists)

Mana tribe


The Mana tribe is made up of: Sandra, Malcolm, Hali, Jeff, Ciera, Caleb, Michaela, Troyzan, Aubry and Tony.


Overall impressions of the Mana tribe

I look at the Mana tribe, and I see casting gold.  There are three people who don’t really seem to belong on this particular season (Hali, Troyzan and Caleb), but I don’t object to seeing any of them play for a second time. The other 7 are all great TV, they all have strategic minds, they all belong on the season, and frankly this makes this tribe feel like the cream of this crop (other than Cirie).


This feels to me like a modern tribe, where people will draw close to other threats and understand the value that keeping other targets around will have for them in the end game.  I also think it’s going to be a really fun tribe to watch in camp life. 


If Jeff’s “Jaws” analogy makes sense on either tribe, it makes most sense on this tribe (I hope that doesn’t bode poorly for their chances in the early challenges).  I’m picking that Tony, Sandra, Michaela and Aubry have a natural connection and click immediately.  As that’s four out of ten, they only need to pull in a couple more to be the majority.  Malcolm, Jeff and Caleb all look like good candidates to join that alliance.  That potentially leaves Ciera, Troyzan and Hali on the outs. 


However, I think the whole set of 10 might end up getting on, and those who go home are going to be the ones who fit in least, rather than anyone not fitting at all.


This also bodes well for their coherence and trust post-merge.  I could see members of the Mana tribe reconnecting and working well together at future times, even if they haven’t always been on the same side.  I also don’t see a huge likelihood of this team turning on each other between the swap and merge, which could mean they come to the merge with numbers (that is, technically with the numbers, although swaps will ensure alliances are more complex).  As we saw in Cambodia with Bayon, coming to the merge with the numbers doesn’t necessarily mean you fully hang together or pick off the other tribe, but it does leave you in a better spot – it always felt like a Bayon core of some description was determining the votes for most of the merge in Cambodia.


This might mean that players from Mana have a slightly higher chance of winning, but even more important (to me) is the number of great players that would mean we get on the jury.  Seeing Sandra, Tony, Jeff or Michaela go out before the jury phase would be a gutting loss for the spectacle of Final Tribal Council.


Mana has a few challenge weak links in Sandra, Ciera and Jeff.  This could set them back, but on the other hand they have some probable superstars in Michaela, Caleb, and possibly Tony and Malcolm.  Their ability to win challenges is going to depend on what the challenge is and how they can play to their strengths and weaknesses.  Get an early win or two under their belts to rest their weak links, and they could easily get on a roll, because I think their top 7 is overall better than Nuku’s top 7.


As soon as I saw the way the cast was split, it was clear that the Mana tribe is my tribe, so I hope to see them do well.


Sandra Diaz-Twine

Sandra Diaz-Twine


My opinion of Sandra

I have to start with Sandra because, well... in her own words, you don’t get to take her crown just cos.


There’s a few in the mix, but Sandra may well be my favourite player of all time.  She has such a good combination of skills that serve her so well in the game.


Sandra is the master of telling you the truth so bluntly and openly that, when she does lie, you don’t know it. I think this might be the single greatest skill a Survivor player can have.  The less frequently you lie, the more damage you can do with the lie that no-one sees coming.  The other side is that you can also get away with withholding things.  Sandra was able to tip out a bucket of fish, with her bold rash personality and her active fight with Jonny Fairplay, and somehow get it to stick on Christa, her ally with a sweet and unassuming personality, because everyone just assumed that if Sandra did it she would just admit it.


While Sandra is often painted as the master of the ‘anyone but me’ strategy, I think this undersells her real strategy, which is ‘I’ll do what it takes to make sure it isn’t me, but if I can decide who goes home that’s even better.’  She didn’t settle for ‘anyone but me’ when she got Trish booted instead of Rupert, or Burton instead of Lil.  She tried to get Russell out several times in Heroes vs Villains, but was happy to show the flexibility of reverting to other plans when she couldn’t make it happen.  She tries to push things in her own direction, but she can back off when it isn’t working and ensure that she keeps herself safe.  This is more effective than simply ‘anyone but me.’


These things don’t only make her a very effective player of the game, they also make her great TV.  Why Sandra was ever cast as a ‘villain’ is still beyond me.  She took down the villains of Pearl Islands, Fairplay and Burton, and avenged her ally Rupert in doing so.  Then she took down Russell as well.  Sandra may be the ultimate Survivor hero.  Of all the things I’m looking forward to in this season, Sandra is a clear number one.


Sandra’s ‘Big Move’

So many.  Sandra might have saved Trish from a woman who wanted to buy her eyes, but she took her down brutally to save Rupert.  She also burned Russell’s hat.


But her biggest ‘big move’ was sneaking in on Fairplay and Burton talking, and then going and getting Tijuana and bringing her back to listen in.  She forced a change in the dynamics in the camp that the other side never recovered from and that directly led to her win.


She is also one of the few that is literally a ‘game changer’ in that she won twice, something that was thought to be impossible before she did it.


What are Sandra’s chances of making the merge?

80%. Sandra is set up in the Mana tribe rather well.  As noted above, I see her putting together an alliance based around natural bonds and allies, and she could be well set early.


It could be a different story post-swap (and inevitably, there will be at least one).  Sandra’s safety is going to be dictated in large part by her tribe draw.  If she ends up in an Angkor-like weak tribe, or with the numbers stacked against her, and with several votes to get through in that tribe, she could be in trouble.  Otherwise, I don’t think Sandra will stand out as an immediate threat and her social skills will probably allow her to slide through.  No matter what swap tribe she ends up in, no-one is going to see her as a threat to win post-merge immunities, so she will always be a threat that can be dealt with later.


Can Sandra win if she makes the merge?

Her chances are very slim, but I’ll never rule it out.


Sandra has natural allies in the early game, where lots of people seem likely to get on well with her and see her as an asset to the game.  But no-one will forget how Sandra wasn’t seen as a threat in the merge and slipped all the way through in HvV.


There’s a high chance that if Sandra is allowed to make final three, she would be voted the winner solely because everyone on the jury would know that they never should have let her get there, and she would have to have defied the odds to do it.  But everyone playing with her knows this.  This means that even her strongest allies are going to be talking about the need to turn on her earlier rather than later.


Sandra only has one path to the end, and that’s to have so many other people that seem like threats to win that no-one ever quite gets around to her.  But even then it would take her biggest display of smarts yet, and probably immunity at final four, and it seems hard to believe she has that in her.  Winning twice is just too big a target to overcome.


My mother says...

“I never felt any affinity for Sandra but she was a really good player.  She did everything in a quiet sneaky way which I found amusing.”


My prediction for Sandra

Sandra will come in somewhere around 10th.  She will be an easy consensus boot for all sides when they are looking to protect themselves and take out someone that they all know needs to go.


This will mean, however, that we would get to see jury Sandra, which I think is an essential addition to Survivor lore.  If we are deprived of Sandra making the merge, my blogs may be expressed entirely in grumpy cat memes for the rest of the season.


Malcolm Freberg

Malcolm Freberg


My opinion of Malcolm

It was hard not to like Malcolm in Philippines, and root for him to make it out of the carnage of the Matsing tribe with Denise.  While he had an easy temperament and found it easy to get on with anyone, he also survived that tribe by being one of the few rational and normal people there.  He also found the first of several idols, a knack that could come in helpful later.


Malcolm never truly clicked with me, though, and I found myself rooting for Denise and Lisa and even Mike more than for Malcolm by the end of the season.


Then Malcolm came back in Caramoan, and quite simply chose the wrong allies and wrong time to make a move.  He trusted Corinne to be a successful influencer (did he watch Gabon?), and was willing to believe Dawn would betray Cochran and be on their side, a big misread of the situation.  He then managed to play through a few memorable tribal councils, but when he had his chance to really affect the game, he went for a takedown of Philip?  Really?  As fun as it was for us the viewer (especially those of us who were Cochran fans), if Malcolm had managed to take out Cochran at that point, the season might have shifted in his favour.  Even if he had simply allowed the alliance to crumble amongst itself at tribal council, instead of telling them his target, he would have perhaps figured out the cracks to work with.


This leads me to see Malcolm as affable but strategically incomplete.  He’s going to need to read people better, learn how to recover from his mistakes better, and learn how to implement his moves better, if he is going to improve on his finish.


Malcolm’s ‘Big Move’

Keeping his three amigos safe and taking out Philip was certainly the flashiest and most memorable move.  But one week before, he managed to convince his ally Reynold to play an idol on him when he had an idol of his own sitting in his pocket.  That’s cold, and definitely his boldest play yet.


What are Malcolm’s chances of making the merge?

75%.  Malcolm is going to see what way the wind is blowing and get on board with the majority in any pre-merge tribes.  It seems likely that he ends up included in the majority alliance.  He is good at fitting in and becoming a part of any tribe he gets put in, which means he may also avoid any post-swap target even though he is physically able.


The most likely scenario that sees Malcolm goes home before the merge is if he ends up on the bottom of his tribe in a swap, and he is unable to find a way in using his social skills.


Can Malcolm win if he makes the merge?

Yes, but his chances aren’t that great.  Malcolm is likely to be seen as a challenge threat, but he’s going to be facing several other people that are also strong in challenges.  I could see him winning nothing but still being targeted early in the merge in fear of him going on a win streak.  People will also remember his willingness to try stuff and his ability to find idols, only increasing the size of the target on his back.


His best chance of survival is probably hidden immunity idols – he’s had success on this front in the past – and a couple of key allies to clue him in on when attempted hits are coming.  And on that front, Malcolm’s social game is strong.  I have no trouble believing that Malcolm could have some loyal allies, but perhaps not enough.  His only other chance to get deep into the merge may be if Andrea trusts him enough based on the fact that they’ve played together before to get her allies to keep him around. 


I wouldn’t count on it though.  Malcolm will only win this game if he corrects past mistakes, and I’ll have to see it to believe it.


My prediction for Malcolm

Malcolm will be an early merge boot, around 11/12.  He’ll be seen as an immunity threat, but will never actually win a challenge to keep himself safe.  Given the way he turned on the Favourites in Caramoan, he won’t have people willing to truly trust him.


Hali Ford

Hali Ford


My opinion of Hali

I have a soft spot for Hali.  She came into Worlds Apart claiming she earned her Survivor skills playing the game Mafia, something I have played quite a lot of to some success (a shout out, mafia buddies!), and it does have directly translatable skills to Survivor.  It teaches you how and when to lie convincingly.  It teaches you the art of persuading people to your point of view.  It teaches you a bit about when to push forward and when to sit back.  It teaches you about how to use advantages.  I’ve played with some of the very best mafia players and I believe that some of them would be very successful Survivor players. Plus, she’s a law graduate!  I really felt like I might have a bit of a kindred spirit in Hali, and I was hoping to see her show her stuff.


She then didn’t really show much her first time out. The ‘no cares’ attitude that permeated the No Collar tribe in Worlds Apart is suicide in a game that requires attention to detail and an unwillingness to let your guard down.  If Hali turns out to once again be more ‘No Collar’ than law graduate/mafia player, she won’t be able to exert the influence or demonstrate the killer instinct needed to win the game.


I’m hoping Hali comes out swinging and looks more like my original expectations, than her 1.0 self, this time around.


Hali’s ‘Big Move’

I’m open to suggestions.  I think Hali has been cast for potential only.


What are Hali’s chances of making the merge?

20%. Hali would probably be in a great place on the other tribe, but I see her as being on the outs of my expected Sandra/Tony majority alliance in the Mana tribe.  Looking down the list, I have trouble seeing who Hali’s most natural ally is.  While she seems easy to get along with, she also seems likely to be seen as expendable by the tribe.  She needs to hope that the big guns start going after each other, and hope she can get in good with whichever alliance ends up in the majority.


Hali’s best chance of making the merge may well come in the form of a swap at 18.  I could see her finding alliances in the Nuku tribe quite easily, and she come into the swap as a genuine refugee willing to flip.


Can Hali win if she makes the merge?

Yes.  She could fly under the radar, but she’s also likely to have actually made moves and played a respectable game if she gets there. If I knew that this season was to end with a female winner who came into the season under the radar, my money would be on Hali ahead of Sierra or Sarah.


If there is a Kelley Wentworth on this cast – someone who goes from zero to hero with the fans – Hali is probably the one with the greatest potential.


My prediction for Hali

Hali will go before the swap, booted by the Mana tribe before she gets the chance to get back with Sierra and get a grip into the game.  I wouldn’t be surprised if she is the first boot from the Mana tribe (and possibly of the game).


Jeff Varner

Jeff Varner


My opinion of Jeff

The Australian Outback was where I truly fell in love with Survivor.  I was rooting for the Kucha tribe and in particular Mike, Rodger, Elisabeth and Alicia.  Jeff went completely under the radar for me.  It wasn’t until a rewatch many years later that Jeff’s style of play finally registered with me.


I always assumed that if Kucha had won that game, it was probably Mike or Elisabeth who ended up pulling down the money.  I never really saw Jeff as a guy with a plan to beat that, but in hindsight it’s clear he had one.  It’s quite possible that Jeff would have won if not for Mike’s injuries.


By the time Cambodia came around, I was feeling hyped to see Jeff again.  He was so clearly deeply appreciative of an opportunity that he thought had long passed him by.  He delivered completely, despite the fact he only lasted a few episodes. And although he definitely played too hard and made himself a target, he might have done much better if not for drawing the Angkor tribe in the first swap.


Jeff’s ‘big move’

Jeff found himself between two alliances in the first episode of Cambodia, and decided to make his decision on the fly during Tribal Council.   Probst likes nothing more than a live tribal, and Jeff delivered.  He swung and missed with his final decision, though, as Abi quickly became the downfall of his alliance, his game and his entire tribe.


What are Jeff’s chances of making the merge?

55%.  Jeff showed in Cambodia that he’s willing to remain flexible, and you could see him being welcomed into any alliance.  I think he fits very comfortably into my predicted Mana majority alliance. I don’t think Jeff is going to be anyone’s active target early on, and given Jeff’s experience with Survivor so far I think people may take pity on him and really want to see him make a jury.


However, Jeff may not be seen as an essential or trustworthy part of any alliance.  In addition, he may be the single worst challenge competitor out there.  This puts him in a precarious position if Mana lose a couple of immunity challenges early, or if he once again finds himself on a swap tribe that is struggling to win. These factors may turn Jeff into a vote of convenience – the kind of vote out that happens when no-one is willing to stick their neck out to keep you.  And if he overplays again, that’s another reason to get him out early.


Can Jeff win if he makes the merge?

He’s definitely in with a shot.


If Jeff overplays, he’ll already be gone by the merge.  But if he’s playing well, he isn’t going to be seen as an immediate threat once he hits the merge.  He could get deep fast.


As well as that, it’s hard to imagine Jeff being a goat if he did get there.  People know he’s always thinking and always dealing, and if he makes the end there’s a good chance people will know and respect what he did to get there.


Despite that, there are others in the cast who will beat him if he is at the end with them, so for Jeff to win, he needs to figure out the right people to go along with.  If he can find a couple of genuine goats to drag along, he could be the winner.


My mother says...

“Is he the actor?” (She meant Penner) “No?  Well, he looks like him.”


My prediction for Jeff

Jeff makes Final Tribal Council, and doesn’t win.  Other than early challenge performance, it’s hard to see why anyone wants to get rid of Jeff.  He may not be seen as a straight goat, but he should still be seen by some people as beatable, and this is more or less the perfect spot to make final tribal in an all star season (see: Spencer and Tasha).  I’m guessing there will always be bigger fish to fry.


Ciera Eastin

Ciera Eastin


My opinion of Ciera

Even after everything Ciera has done to this point, and the strong visibility she has had on both seasons, I still feel as though Ciera’s skills are underrated by many. I’m a big Ciera fan, and think she has gotten an awful lot right both times that she’s played the game.  I’ll never say no to appearances from Ciera.


Ciera has one of the best knacks Survivor has seen for getting herself out of trouble.  She planted an early seed against John Cody, which bloomed into her own survival in the Blood vs Water pre-merge.  She similarly realised her place at the bottom of Andrew Savage’s totem pole in Cambodia and changed the vote to Woo.


Ciera is often maligned for being a merchant of all big moves, all the time.  However, from my perspective, Ciera has only ever advocated for big moves when it’s been in her interest (or, more accurately, when she’s in the minority and she needs to shift a status quo that is against her) - and often, it creates room for others to come to her and propose things that help her get back into the mix.


I’m waiting for the game where Ciera is comfortably sitting in the majority.  I’m willing to bet that she doesn’t beg people to make big moves when that comes along.


Ciera’s ‘big move’

While Probst would no doubt point to Ciera’s decision to vote out her mother, this was much more of a TV moment that a big move.  Much better was when she sniffed out that her ally, Katie Collins, was lying about having found an idol and then got Katie to admit it by claiming to have actually found the idol herself.


What are Ciera’s chances of making the merge?

10%. She has a big uphill climb.


Ciera is a poor challenge competitor with a massive target on her back, and looks to be very poorly set up with the tribe she’s drawn to begin the game.  She doesn’t immediately seem to fit in, personality wise, the way many of the other big names do on her tribe. 


Ciera had to dodge several bullets to make the merge in Blood vs Water before people knew how strong her game was, and then survived in Cambodia mostly by never going to Tribal.  Ciera’s path to make the merge might be to get to a swap without the Mana tribe losing immunity.  It’s hard for me to see why her tribe wouldn’t boot her the first time they go to tribal council.


Having said that, she’s done it before.  If anyone is capable of talking her way out of a hole, it’s Ciera.  Perhaps just one stubborn ally (say, Malcolm?) could be enough to send someone else, such as Hali, home before her.


Can Ciera win if she makes the merge?

I think she has a very good chance.  Perhaps very good even if she makes a swap. I think Ciera has more natural allies sitting on the Nuku tribe, and she might be able to attach herself to a majority alliance.  If she gets herself into a position where she doesn’t feel on the bottom and doesn’t need to talk up big moves so frequently, I could see her slide under the radar for a good long while.  Get her back to the final 7 and she knows exactly how to play the end game.


Opponents of Ciera should get her out pre-merge.  Otherwise, I think they could find it much harder to get rid of her when it really matters.


My prediction for Ciera

In a vacuum, Ciera looks like the first boot.  She doesn’t look to fit well into her tribe, she’s weak in challenges, she has a target on her back – I was very tempted to pick her as the first boot of the season.  That’s what my gut says to do.


But my head looks at the eight people who were announced to return at the end of season 33, and Jeff’s Jaws analogy, and that makes me think Ciera has a longer run in her.


Since that deters me from predicting she’s first out, I’m going for the opposite – she makes it to final tribal council... and loses there.


Caleb Reynolds

Caleb Reynolds


My opinion of Caleb

We didn’t get to see much of Caleb on Survivor, and I’ve never been a Big Brother watcher so Survivor is all I’ve got.


In the end Caleb across as a likeable guy, a guy who could probably be somewhat relied upon with information and to stay loyal for the bulk of the game.  His relationship with Tai was a nice touch and made him seem very kind.  But I doubt he’d end up being memorable if not for his medevac.


I’m not sure that Caleb is really cut out for a game like Survivor, though.


Caleb’s ‘Big Move’

Attempted death, I suppose.  Really, Caleb’s medevac was most memorable for the production decision to take a much more heavy ‘behind the scenes’ approach than for Caleb himself.  Caleb never had any opportunity to make much of a strategic move within the confines of the game.


What are Caleb’s chances of making the merge?

90%. I can’t think of a reason that anyone, on any potential tribe, would want to vote Caleb out pre-merge unless it is strictly an unlucky break with numbers (or, perhaps, a pre-emptive strike against Tai).  Of all the post-merge immunity threats, Caleb is the most straightforward person, and the one coming in with the least baggage, and so of all of the alpha males I think he is the least likely to be seen as someone to get out pre-merge.


Can Caleb win if he makes the merge?

No.  I can’t see a world in which Caleb can convince people that he is the right person to win the million dollars.  Caleb’s the kind of guy who could be dragged to the end by a close ally.


It’s not that I think Caleb is incapable of strategy.  I just think he’s too nice for brutal strategy. If Caleb makes the end, there are going to be shots that Caleb could have taken that he didn’t take, and the jury isn’t going to appreciate it.


My prediction for Caleb

Caleb’s going to go out around 6 or 7, when people start thinking about removing other people’s goats.


Michaela Bradshaw

Michaela Bradshaw


My opinion of Michaela

Michaela was one of my highlights of Millennials vs Gen X.  She lights up the screen every time she appears on it.  From her perspective on ‘Figtails’, to her dominance in challenges, to her stumbling on Jay finding the idol, to her exit from the game, I loved every minute.


I think Michaela has Sandra upside.  She has Sandra’s ability to by blunt with the truth and still be well liked despite it, and she also has the flexibility to put her personal feelings aside and make the move that’s in her best interests.  Where she falls well short of Sandra, though, is that she seems to entirely lack the guile needed to keep your true feelings hidden when you need to, and to make the most important moves in the sneakiest way possible.  She’ll need to improve on this if she’s going to succeed.


Michaela’s ‘Big Move’

Michaela’s biggest strategic move got her booted, when she tried to plan out a path forward for the rest of the game with Jay and Will.  But her biggest move overall was managing to be such a big character that she got invited to play back-to-back seasons despite being booted pre-merge.


What are Michaela’s chances of making the merge?

85%. For one thing, I think Michaela and Sandra are going to get on like a house on fire, and that’s going to protect Michaela in the early game.  Where Michaela had some early difficulties fitting in last time around, this time I think she will be in the thick of things from the start.


She has two other advantages going for her.  The first is that she is a challenge beast and the second is that she is coming into the game as an unknown and therefore without a target on her back.  I think that, unlike some other challenge threats, this means she will be seen more as an asset then as a threat in the post-swap game.  I also think that it isn’t immediately apparent how intelligent she is, and so if she can keep that under wraps for a little while it won’t hurt.


She was also one of the eight people named at the end of season 33 as competing on this season, and perhaps one of the oddest choices to reveal.  While people like Sandra and Cirie were always getting revealed, the choice of Michaela suggests that she should at least make the merge this time.


Can Michaela win if she makes the merge?

Maybe, but her chances aren’t very good.


Michaela is too smart, too physical, too everything, for her own good.  She’s going to stand out as a threat even amongst this cast.  She’ll have to work hard to even make the finale.  She has to improve significantly on her flaws, and she didn’t have much time to do it with these back to back appearances.


Let her get too deep though, and it’s possible she could go on an immunity run, even amongst this cast.  And I’m guessing lots of people will like her, so she might slide by when she shouldn’t.


My prediction for Michaela

She loses the last immunity challenge to my predicted winner (we’re nearly there...) and is our fourth place finisher.


Troyzan Robertson



My opinion of Troyzan

I haven’t returned to One World or given it much thought in a long time – it’s my least favourite season.  However, I remember at the time that I actually felt a little sorry for Troyzan.  It felt like Kim did to him what Rodney later did to Mike Holloway – turned him into public enemy number one as a strong strategic move despite the fact that his behaviour didn’t quite justify it.  I mean, Troyzan did have his big arrogant meltdown when he won immunity, but that was after Kim had already managed to get him sidelined.  I completely understood the reason for that reaction.


I can take or leave Troyzan getting a second chance, but I don’t think he has really earned a reputation as a villain and I wouldn’t be surprised if we see a mellow and perfectly likeable Troyzan.  I also wouldn’t be surprised if he gets an invisible edit amongst this cast.


Troyzan’s ‘Big Move’

I’ll need some help on this one.


What are Troyzan’s chances of making the merge?

50%. Troyzan would be an easy cut just before the merge, when truly good players make self-interested moves to keep themselves safe.  Much like Woo in Cambodia, he could find himself being a hit as the result of a numbers move, and I don’t think it would be hard to outplay him.  All-star casts have a way of thinning the herd – lesser known players who figure out how to play well and be adaptable survive, but those who don’t make the step up can be seen as easy prey and mercilessly dispatched.


But it’s also unlikely that anyone will be immediately gunning for Troyzan when they first get out there.  He’ll probably help you win challenges, and he seems like no real threat to win down the line. He should be safe for the first few votes at least, and from there it might just depend on his established alliances and what a swap does to him.


Can Troyzan win if he makes the merge?

No.  Troyzan lacks the social awareness to get himself into a good position in the game.  If he makes it to the end, he won’t be able to convince people it’s on his merit.  It’s much more likely he would be taken along as a goat.


Andy Baker wrote a couple of seasons ago about Troyzan’s performance in the Durham Warriors Survivor experience.  It was clear that Troy still had difficulty recognising his spot on the totem pole and reacting to it, and the level of competition he will be facing here will be far higher.  You can’t win the game if you can’t self-analyse your position accurately.


My mother says...

“I remember his name. Such a weird name. But I don’t remember his face.”


My prediction for Troyzan

Troyzan will be used as a number for a while and then cut when convenient.  I see him doing similar to last time, and coming in around 7th/8th.


Aubry Bracco

Aubry Bracco


My opinion of Aubry

I love Aubry.  While you could say she came in the shadow of Sophie and Shirin, I see her more as the start of a new breed – the female geeky superfan who is cast for more than mere comic relief.  Aubry was a true triple threat – strong strategically, strong in challenges and, generally speaking, strong socially.  I think casting more people like Aubry can only be good for the show.


I believe Aubry played the best game in Kaoh Rong, but she had one big flaw, and that was that she stopped talking to people she didn’t trust.  Without that personal connection, you can’t share with people how strong your game is, and neither will you get their votes with personal connection – you are gambling on them hearing tales from others or voting based on your final tribal answers.


Besides that, Aubry was easily one of the most watchable characters in Kaoh Rong, and I think her alliance with Cydney was one of the best Survivor pairs we’ve ever seen (I rank them right up there with duos like Tom & Ian, Tina & Colby, JT & Stephen etc.)  I can’t wait to see her play again.


Aubry’s ‘Big Move’

Aubry’s first season was full of strong play, but her social play to convince Tai not to play his half of the super idol on Scot was without a doubt the biggest move.  She managed to take two players and two idols from the opposing alliance in one fell swoop.


What are Aubry’s chances of making the merge?

99%. I think Aubry is going to come into this game slightly revered and yet still underestimated.  Kaoh Rong is the most recent thing this cast has seen, and Aubry came out of it looking like a hero, but a flawed hero (given she didn’t win).  Perhaps more than anyone else in this cast, I think people are going to want to play with Aubry.


She has natural allies in the Mana tribe, but I also can’t think of many people on either tribe that wouldn’t want to work with her.  The closest I can get is potential apathy (say, Brad Culpepper).


If I had to put my money on one person to make the merge, Aubry’s the pick. I think the only thing that takes Aubry out before the merge would be a medevac.


Can Aubry win if she makes the merge?

This is where it’s going to get more tricky for Aubry, but we’ve already seen that she’s adaptable.  I could see her being able to put back together a Mana alliance of stragglers, even if alliance kingpins like Tony and Sandra get voted out.  I have no problem seeing her relate to Ciera, Hali, Jeff, Troyzan... anyone who survives potential carnage.


If Tai makes the merge, she could also have an alliance from the Nuku tribe as an option.  And that’s aside from any alliances she manages to make at the swap.


I don’t see Aubry as first on the hit list from opposing alliances either.  With potentially very strong challenge competitors still on the board, along with players who are going to be perceived as massive social threats, I get the feeling Aubry is somehow going to sneak under the radar for a while.  If someone like Aubry can even get as far as final 7 or 8 before people start thinking about targeting her, she’s going to be in a great spot to find her way to the end.


My prediction for Aubry

By this point you might have realised that I’m predicting a Mana tribe alliance of convenience accounts for the top four.  Michaela at four, Jeff/Ciera at two and three...


And Aubry as my winner pick.  I’ve got a great feeling about her chances this year.  I think she is in a very Jeremy-like spot – the kind of person that people intellectually know they should be targeting and seeing as a threat. yet somehow they keep taking out each other and letting her walk through the middle. 


Tony Vlachos

Tony Vlachos


My opinion of Tony

I have mixed feelings about Tony.  On one hand, I felt like his strategies really shouldn’t have worked and that he wasn’t a very good player, and it’s remarkable that he actually managed to get to the end to claim his win.  On the other hand, what an entertaining player he was!  You never knew what he was going to do next.  And certainly, by the time he got to the end, he deserved to be the winner.


Tony is the kind of guy that you have to see play a second time, just for the energy and unpredictability he will bring to the season alone.  But for me the most intriguing storyline is whether Tony can adapt to perceptions about him and play the most unpredictable game he could possibly play – a predictable, calm, loyal one.


As time has settled on Cagayan, I’ve also come to realise that Tony is actually a likeable guy.  Despite his devious villainy, I think most of those who played with him had to admit that they enjoyed his company for the time they were out there together, and that can go a long way.


Tony’s ‘Big Move’

Tony’s bag of tricks was full of moves, but his best skill of all was understanding the people around them and how to use who they were effectively.  He played on LJs strategic smarts, on Trish’s ability to clean up behind him, and on Spencer’s self-interests.  But above all, he parried Woo’s sense of honour into a final two spot, which is possibly the closest thing I’ve ever seen to a magic trick performed on Survivor.


What are Tony’s chances of making the merge?

40%. Tony is part of my predicted majority alliance to start off the game, but I don’t think he is deeply at threat before the swap even if he doesn’t find himself in the majority.  He’s going to be a big asset in the challenges and that’s not something that anyone would give up lightly, let alone a Mana tribe that is really going to be reliant on their challenge studs for success.


It’s after the swap that Tony could be vulnerable.  He’s going to be seen as a threat down the line, and if he ends up without allies on his new tribe, he might have to win out to survive.  While his natural allies on Mana seem likely to keep him safe early on, those from the Mana tribe who don’t make it into that alliance might be just as likely to target Tony as people from the Nuku tribe come swap time.


Despite that, Tony is still a great physical asset with a good social game, so he could make it to the merge.


Can Tony win if he makes the merge?

No.  Tony is the former winner that I think has the least chance of repeating.  There isn’t a soul on that beach who isn’t targeting Tony, and more than half of them will have him pegged as the biggest threat of all.  It’s only a question of when, not if, they target him.  No doubt people will also be doing everything that they can to keep idols and other advantages out of Tony’s hands.


I can’t imagine a scenario where Tony could run this gauntlet and come out the other end with a win.


My mother says...

My mother didn’t remember Tony at all when I said his name, talked about him, reminded her that he won Spencer’s season... but she had a visceral reaction to his picture.  “Oh, the cop.  I did not like him at all.” I can verify this is true – she couldn’t understand why people would vote him ahead of Woo.


My prediction for Tony

It’s hard for me to see Tony being given a chance to find idols and make social footholds in the game.  Having said that, he’s a big asset in the pre-merge game.  So I’m picking Tony to be the merge boot and first juror – let’s say that makes him 13th.


A look at the Nuku Tribe (aka, the tribe of alphas)

Nuku tribe


The Nuku tribe is made up of Debbie, Zeke, Sierra, JT, Andrea, Brad, Sarah, Ozzy, Cirie and Tai.


Overall impressions of the Nuku Tribe

Where the Mana tribe is the tribe I’m rooting for to succeed, the Nuku tribe is the tribe where I’m simply rooting for a few people to get out alive.  I’m desperate to see Cirie make the merge after Heroes vs Villains – I want to believe she can succeed again.  I also really like Tai and Andrea and want to see them do well.  Debbie will be entertaining for as long as she survives.


However, overall, this tribe feels less interesting.  In Sierra and Brad, it has two players I didn’t particularly need to see play a second time.  Sarah is at least a passable choice to return, but this season is an odd choice for it.


Beyond that, I’m just not sure that I see a lot of interesting dynamics on the table.  The most natural friendship seems to be Ozzy and Brad, who should get on fine.  Otherwise, you have Tai and Debbie who had an awkward relationship on Kaoh Rong, JT betraying Cirie in HvV, Cirie voting Ozzy out in Micronesia, all dynamics that could destabilise the tribe, and otherwise a bit of an odd bunch that don’t seem likely to mesh that well.


Nuku could potentially be successful early due to physical strength.  Cirie is their only real weak link physically, and all of their men are proven in challenges.  Sarah and Sierra were picked on their original seasons in part for physicality, and Debbie was good in the challenges as well (and let’s not forget that puzzles lay down for her like lovers).  On the surface, it looks like a pretty complete tribe, but Ozzy is the only one that is a transcendent challenge competitor. Lose a challenge or two early, and allow people like Sandra and Jeff to sit out, and Nuku would lose their challenge advantage pretty quickly.


But even if their physical strength leads them to early wins, I think they are likely to implode and turn on each other fairly soon.  I simply find it difficult to see where strong loyalty and trust will come from.  In addition, a lot of the players on this tribe just - to put it bluntly - aren’t very good strategically.  Cirie and Zeke run circles around the rest of them, and it could lead them to being alienated early.  They’ll have to use all the smarts they’ve got to survive on this tribe.


I see a majority alliance forming early around Ozzy and Brad.  Cirie will realise her chance to survive is with the old timers and will try to convince Ozzy and JT to band together with her.  I see Tai meshing with Ozzy, and Zeke wanting to stick with Cirie.  That’s your majority to start with, but it’s tenuous and it could well break apart.  Andrea, Sierra and Sarah could band together as a group to the side, and help split that original alliance in half.


Debbie Wanner

Debbie Wanner


My opinion of Debbie

I’m sure most of you either love or hate Debbie.  I love her.  I like the fact that someone can (accurately) describe themselves as being like Coach but still come out and pull off genuine strategic heists and outplay people unexpectedly in challenges. Debbie shouldn’t have amounted to anything more than an outlandish character, and yet for a while in the middle of Kaoh Rong the show was building her up as a potential winner.  Even just imagining that as possible was delightfully subversive.


Debbie’s combination of ego-driven caricature and, at times, savvy Survivor player created something entirely new, and I was gripped.  I couldn’t wait to see where Debbie would go next.  She was wildly entertaining, and many players underestimated her. 


But ultimately, she fell to the same flaw that felled many ego-driven players before her – whenever she made a judgment call, she trusted it completely.  She made a lot of good calls during the earlier game, but her approach to Tai and her faith in Julia showed that she was beginning to buy in to how well she was playing and how strong a position she thought she was in, and she lost any flexibility in the process.


If Debbie was able to make just one more big hit this season – let’s say, taking out an alpha male such as Ozzy – that would be worth watching the season for alone.


Debbies ‘Big Move’

That would be when she opened the bomb doors and fired on Liz Markham (and all of us back home).  After two weeks of getting the kooky edit, Debbie surprised us all by being an under the radar strategic threat, and it was good.


What are Debbie’s chances of making the merge?

15%. I imagine that the Ozzy/Debbie dynamic could become one of the most enjoyable things about the premiere, but it may not last much longer than that.  I can’t quite figure if Debbie is going to see Ozzy as Peter (too arrogant for his own good) or Nick (a greek Adonis that she wants on side), but either way I imagine that Ozzy is going to be completely out on Debbie. She’ll drive him nuts within a day, and part of him will be having Cochran flashbacks.


Debbie has not been handed a kind tribe draw.  Alpha males like Ozzy, Brad and potentially JT are not going to have any love for her.  Tai already doesn’t trust her.  Cirie won’t burn any social capital trying to save her (in fact, she’s likely to be glad there is someone else to target first), and it’s hard to see girls like Andrea and Sierra getting on with Debbie as well as, say, Aubry was able to.  That doesn’t leave many alliance options open to Debbie.


Common wisdom is that 10 person tribes are easier to hide in, but in Debbie’s case I think it leaves her with too little room to move.  She needs too many votes on her side to survive, and being on board for a single vote doesn’t change the dynamic of her tribe completely the way it did in Kaoh Rong.


Her best chance of surviving the early game is that she is able to demonstrate that she is a challenge asset. 


Can Debbie win if she makes the merge?

No. Debbie may be able to go deep if she corrects the flexibility issue she showed last time around.  But in this cast she’ll never be given credit for being a rational strategist should she have to argue her case at final tribal council.  It’s possible that she could be taken to the end as a goat, but that’s as good as it will get this time around for Debbie.


Overall prediction for Debbie

Debbie’s the first boot on the Nuku tribe.  I just can’t see how she pulls herself into an alliance that works out for her.  While she might have been able to fit in with the slightly nuttier Mana tribe, the Nuku tribe is too full of people who won’t have time for her nuance and will tire of her antics quickly.


Zeke Smith

Zeke Smith


My opinion of Zeke

Zeke is entertaining in confessional, but I think he left a lot to be desired in terms of his game play in Millennials vs Gen X.  It started to fall apart from the beginning, when he told Jay he wanted to target Michaela after Figgy and this ended up causing those two to patch up their rift and vote out Zeke’s ally, Mari.  He then yelled at Hannah when they got back to camp, potentially changing the nature of their relationship, a relationship he really ended up needing later.


He also was clearly playing the game hard all the way along (Adam, for example, has said that Zeke gunned for him after the Mari vote, burning another potential ally) and so this led to him being considered a big threat very early in the game.  Once Zeke got that target on his back, he couldn’t get it off, and he was gone.


Ultimately, Zeke fell short for me.  Jeff Probst really shouldn’t hype someone as being one of the ‘five reasons to watch the season’ when they come ninth, and perhaps my expectations were too high.  But, I also never felt Zeke the character was fully realised and, remarkably for someone so alive and unique, he ended up feeling more like a supporting character in the stories of Adam, David and even Bret than feeling like a fully formed character himself.


I’m hoping to get a better sense of who Zeke is this time around.


Zeke’s ‘Big Move’

It’s impressive that Zeke managed to get a bunch of people who he didn’t previously have much of a game relationship with to pull rocks for him.  Bret and Sunday, in particular, could have backed themselves to find a way back in, and the fact that Will went to rocks then when he voted Zeke at 9 also doesn’t make much sense on the surface.  That speaks to how well Zeke managed to sell them on this being their best move when it probably wasn’t.


What are Zeke’s chances of making the merge?

50%. Zeke has the advantage of coming in as a complete unknown, but the disadvantage of appearing threatening.  Zeke radiates with an intelligence that is very difficult to hide.  This might not be the right tribe for admitting to being a superfan, either.


I think Zeke may actually be the rare case where he suffers from being an unknown.   People may look at Zeke and talk to him and get the impression that he is a strategic master, or possibly even a villain, and he could suffer from a HvV backlash.  Some of these people won’t forget that Russell Hantzed his way right through to the final three, hoodwinking many seasoned players along the way, and no-one on this cast is going to want that to happen to them.  If Zeke is identified as a threat and voted out early, I think he can probably stick some blame at Russell’s feet.


But if Zeke can settle quickly and find get himself locked into an alliance (and again at the swap), there’s no other obvious reason to vote him out.  He is helpful enough in the challenges and he’s unlikely to alienate people.  Zeke’s best chance is probably figuring out that he needs to stick with Cirie, and hoping that Cirie has enough connections to keep them both safe.


Can Zeke win if he makes the merge?

Possible, but unlikely.


Zeke would probably be popular enough, and have done enough game-wise, to win if he made it to the end.  But, Zeke’s going to need to improve significantly on his game play from the first season if he wants to make it all the way to Final Tribal Council.  Somehow, he needs to make himself appear to be less of a threat than he is, and he also needs to rein in his instinct to go after other threats too soon.


Overall, I struggle to see Zeke being able to dial himself back enough with this very short turnaround.  He won’t have had time to reflect on what went wrong last time, and even if he manages to do a decent self assessment in the time he had, it’s going to be very hard to change his instinctual desire to be constantly making moves.


If Zeke does somehow make it to final tribal, though, he’s probably going to have played a winning game.


My mother says...

“I liked him to begin with but then his hair grew and he got more and more like Syndrome [from the Incredibles] as time went on.”


Overall prediction for Zeke

I like Zeke is out around 15 – post-swap, pre-merge – when the cast identify him as a threat and fear what they don’t know about him.  Mana will be happy to take him out and I get the feeling plenty of people on the Nuku tribe will be just fine with that as well.


Sierra Thomas

Sierra Thomas


My opinion of Sierra

Sierra is the oddest selection on this cast, but perhaps that’s not a surprise given she was (apparently) a last minute substitution.  Every all-star season we get one person that I really don’t understand how they got there, and this season that one is Sierra.  At the moment, she doesn’t feel like an all-star to me, and she’s going to have to notch some achievements on this season to prove me wrong.


Sierra was, overall, a disappointment in Worlds Apart.  She was portrayed as a person who kept considering flipping on Dan and Rodney, but she never did.  You can understand it from her perspective – why go with someone like Mike who you will lose to over those two who you can beat?  But Sierra never recognised her place in her alliance either, and so in the end her game became a series of missed opportunities and maybes that didn’t play out.


I think Andrea 1.0 is an ok comparison for Sierra’s eventual game in Worlds Apart, except that Andrea showed more signs of having an extra gear and being able to get others to follow her lead.  I’m not confident that Sierra can break out an extra gear like the one we saw from Andrea 2.0.


Sierra’s ‘Big Move’

I’ve got nothing for ya.


What are Sierra’s chances of making the merge?

90%. Sierra is the kind of girl that any majority alliance will want to bring in.  They will see her as a work horse, good in challenges, not too threatening to their leadership.  This would be perfect for her to settle into a majority alliance early.

It’s hard to see any reason why Sierra would be targeted early. 


Can Sierra win if she makes the merge?

No.  As much as I hope to see a Kelley Wentworth, or even an Andrea 2.0, out of Sierra... I don’t really see a scenario in which that plays out.  Sierra feels like someone who is too passive to make any impact on a jury.  She could be dragged along to final tribal council, and if she is well done to whoever managed to get there with her, because she’ll be a zero vote finalist.


Overall prediction for Sierra

I think Sierra is going deep, as people don’t worry about her until closer to the end of the game.  Ultimately, though, I think she’ll be walked over in the game and her time might be up when she tries to make a move near the end.  I’ll say she comes 5th or 6th.


JT Thomas

JT Thomas


My opinion of JT

I appreciate JT for what he is (a likeable, good ol’ country boy), and I understand how he won Tocantins.  But, even at the time Tocantins was airing, I was rooting for Stephen and Taj, and even Sierra and Brendan, and JT passed me by as being a little dull.


My opinion really didn’t change in Heroes vs Villains, as JT made questionable calls and his biggest impact on the game was to cost his entire tribe the game. 


Ultimately, my feeling with JT is that he just doesn’t have the strategic game to keep in touch with the best players in the game, and that will be highlighted even more now. 


JT’s ‘Big Move’

Without a doubt, JT’s decision to give Russell his idol based on a theory of how the other tribe was breaking down was bold and was certainly a ‘big move’.  It was also one of the biggest mistakes Survivor has ever seen, and JT got booted right after.


What are JT’s chances of making the merge?

50%. JT should be in good shape in the early days of the Nuku tribe.  People like Ozzy and Brad will realise that they need JT, and they don’t want to expose themselves by taking him out too early.


I think JT’s issue is going to come in the swap.  JT is likeable, he’s strong enough in challenges without feeling essential, and he’s a former winner.  Not only that, but he’s stuffed the game up for allies before, something I’m sure Cirie will remind people of if the chance presents itself.  That combo feels like it could be enough to see him being shipped off early.


Can JT win if he makes the merge?

No.  As with Tony, I can’t see people letting JT get to the end.  He looks far too threatening on paper.


But he also suffers from another issue, which is that in this era of Survivor, with whatever jury the final three are facing... I’m not sure JT wins their votes either.  He’s going to have to show better strategic smarts than what he’s managed so far (in Tocantins, he really left it to Stephen.  In HvV, he flipped against the majority alliance creating mistrust issues, and then the Russell blunder).   These aren’t the right kinds of mistakes to be making – they are the kinds of mistakes that lead the jury to lack respect for your game.


My mother says...

Upon me prompting her that he was a charming southern cowboy who won the game... “I still don’t remember him.  But I remember Colby.  He was nice to his mother.”


Overall prediction for JT

Come swap time, I could see JT being targeted by both new tribe members and old allies alike, and I’m not sure that will let up.  JT may make the merge, but he’ll go shortly after.


Andrea Boehlke

Andrea Boehlke

My opinion of Andrea

I really like Andrea, and I’m glad she’s back for another shot.  In Redemption Island, for a long time Andrea felt like the only person who had any shot of knocking Rob off his throne, and while the edit made it abundantly clear that it wasn’t going to end up happening, I think she got closer than anyone else to being successful during the game.


In Caramoan, Andrea gave herself every chance of winning the game.  She played both the social and strategic game well.  When it came time for her to make her moves, it was probably all or nothing – she succeeds, she wins, but instead she was outplayed by Cochran.  But I think she figured out the optimal moves and the right time to make them, she just may have chosen the wrong person to make them with.  I also loved the way that, when voted out, she went out in the spirit of the game in a season that otherwise felt like a lot of people were taking things very personally.


All of this makes me feel pretty good about what we’ll see from Andrea this time.  She seems to recognise her strengths, and so I don’t expect to see her overcompensate for her loss in Caramoan. And no matter how things go, we shouldn’t expect to see any bitterness.


Andrea’s ‘Big Move’

Spending what seemed like a whole day following Malcolm just to make sure he didn’t find another hidden immunity idol.  That’s truly taking your game into your own hands, and not letting a straggler from another alliance drift further than they should.  Andrea learned the lesson from Boston Rob, but she put it into practice at the perfect time.


What are Andrea’s chances of making the merge?

65%. My instinct says that Andrea is both savvy and social enough to find her way into the majority alliance, whatever it might be.  Given that I think it’s an Ozzy/Brad led alliance, I don’t think Andrea will have any problem going in to alliance with some alpha males that she will likely see herself as smarter than (especially in terms of game smarts).  Andrea feels like she’s also gotten a good tribe draw for her – she might be in more trouble if she was on the other tribe.


However, it’s hard for me to analyse how much people could be out for Andrea.  Malcolm may set the tone on this somewhat (are they going to be fast allies if possible?  Or will Malcolm want Andrea out?)  Andrea should, rightfully, be seen as a big threat, socially and strategically.  Where someone like Ciera has a remarkable knack at remaining underrated and going under the radar, I think Andrea sticks out much more clearly as a threat.


This could mean Andrea gets targeted post-swap.  She is similar to other recent post-swap targets such as Anna Khait and Michaela last season.


65% is bang on the mean, given I’m expecting 65% of the cast to make the merge, so this number reflects completely even odds.  I could easily see it going either way.


Can Andrea win if she makes the merge?

It’s possible, but I think she has a tough road to make final tribal council.


While Andrea may successfully be able to manipulate and outsmart people like Ozzy and Brad, I think she’s going to have more trouble with some others, especially in the Mana tribe, and overall I’m not sure that her bonds are going to be as strong this game as they were in Caramoan.


If she successfully walks the tightrope to final tribal, though, as with Zeke, she has probably played a winning game. 


Overall prediction for Andrea

I think Andrea’s going to be in trouble when the merge comes along.  I could see her name being bandied about a lot as the possible target, and while I think she’ll survive a few votes as people ultimately settle on bigger and more important targets, I don’t think she’ll ever be overlooked for too long.


She’ll come in mid merge somewhere, around the 8-10 area.


Brad Culpepper

Brad Culpepper


My opinion of Brad

Did we really need to see Brad Culpepper again?  I mean, really?  This just feels like Probst-crush casting to me.  I don’t know why various people couldn’t play, but when you hear names like Penner, Earl and Mike Holloway were in the mix, it’s kind of hard to take Brad.  Gosh, if they needed a crotchety older guy, I would even have taken Dale Wentworth in this spot!


Nevertheless, Brad is what we’ve got so – my opinion is that Brad is bad at the game of Survivor.


Brad’s ‘Big Move’

To be fair to Brad, he did have one genuinely good move in Blood vs Water, and that was getting his wife Monica to burn hidden immunity idol clues publicly rather than read them.  As a countermove to the Codys' deliberate attempt to target Brad, it was pretty strong.  But it also just drew the target even more strongly onto his own back.


What are Brad’s chances of making the merge?

40%. I think Brad’s going to get off to a great start, making immediate headway in an alliance that will control the Nuku tribe in the early going, but I can see it once again going off the rails quickly.  I don’t think Brad can take a step back and stop being the alpha male, and he’s going to annoy people.  Those who he does have genuine and successful bonds with can easily be torn away from him at a swap.


Brad has the physical capabilities to help his tribe win, and his best path to the merge is probably avoiding Tribal Council as much as possible.


Can Brad win if he makes the merge?

No.  No-one is voting for Brad to win the game. He is going to alienate people in this game.  He can’t help it.  He’s an abrasive guy who says things that get him into trouble.  Brad/Sandra could be a fantastic dynamic to get a look at, because I can see fireworks there.


Brad would be a good choice for a jury goat, but he doesn’t seem like the kind of person people are actually going to be able to drag along to the end.  It seems inevitable that he eventually gets voted out by people who he has alienated.


Overall prediction for Brad

Brad’s going out pre-merge, and possibly even pre-swap.  He’s going to be an easy mark at some point for a savvy player to take a shot at.


Sarah Lacina

Sarah Lacina


My opinion of Sarah

Sarah has faded in my memory a bit since Cagayan.  I remember enjoying her taking on Tony, and calling him out as a cop, and in the early days she felt like a strong player.  But she made a mistake when she was inflexible at the merge.


It’s hard to know who the real Sarah is at this point.  Is she a sharp operator who can see through people?  Or is she a person who lacks finesse in her social game to her detriment?


One thing that has happened to Sarah since last time she’s on is that she’s become a mum.  It will be interesting to see if this has mellowed her and leaves her with a game that looks different at all.


Sarah’s ‘Big Move’

Calling Tony out as a cop is not only Sarah’s big move, it’s the thing that made her memorable enough to return at all.


What are Sarah’s chances of making the merge?

80%. Sarah ought to make the merge.  She’s not likely to be perceived as a threat, she should fit in reasonably well on a tribe that could value her physical strength, and even after a swap there’s no reason to target her right away.


Where it could go wrong for Sarah is if she is too hard-headed.  It wouldn’t be entirely surprising to see someone like Ozzy clash with Sarah if she is headstrong, and so her path to the merge is to keep her head down and fit in.


Can Sarah win if she makes the merge?



Sarah is one of the least experienced players out there and I think experience is critical to navigating the end game.  I think Sarah would have great difficulty outplaying some of the more seasoned heads in the game in the final stretch.  Add to that, I think she is going to have difficulty connecting to all of the members of the jury.  If Sarah does get to final tribal council, I wouldn’t be surprised if her story is somewhat like Stephenie LaGrossa, where she hasn’t been able to play the social game well enough to win in the end.


Overall prediction for Sarah

Sarah is out pre-merge, possibly even pre-swap.  She’s going to rub someone the wrong way, she’ll get confrontational when it happens, and she doesn’t have the bonds or experience to escape the target it will bring.


Ozzy Lusth

Ozzy Lusth


My opinion of Ozzy

I know the exact point at which I figured out Ozzy wasn’t great at Survivor.  It was in the second episode of Cook Islands, where he decided that on a tribe of five and with no idea when a swap would come, he would throw a challenge to get rid of Billy Garcia.  As it happened, the swap was next and the Latino tribe was left down in numbers (overall), and divided by the thrown challenge, and they never recovered from it.


Now, I was rooting for Ozzy at the back end of that season, but that’s because I was rooting for the Aitu four against the treacherous Raro tribe.  And in my mind Ozzy’s feats in challenges are unparalleled, even by other great competitors like Joe.  But he was so lucky that he could win challenges, and that the mutiny bonded his group of four, because the rest of his game was terrible.


Ozzy hasn’t improved his strategic and social game over time, and there’s no reason to think that he will have this time out.  Ozzy is, instead, a strategic obstacle for the strong player. Yul figured out how to beat him in Cook Islands, and Sophie (with a little help from Coach) managed to hold him at bay in South Pacific, but it’s scary how close Ozzy has come to winning twice despite having no real game at all, primarily as the result of major seismic splits in the game that have left Ozzy in underdog positions.


I really didn’t need to see Ozzy again.  But, it will be interesting to see how he handles a full returnee season.  Will he flame out completely?  Or, will he find a way, yet again, to hang around deep in the game and threaten to win (if he does it for a third time, I might have to concede there’s something to his game...)


Ozzy’s ‘Big Move’

Volunteering to be voted out just to knock out a potential thorn in his side at Redemption Island and re-enter the game.  It took balls and was definitely a ‘big move’.  The jury is out on whether it was really a good move, but it worked out ok for him (it’s worth remembering that he was within inches of losing a duel to Cochran later in the season, so he probably shouldn’t have been staking his life on duels).


What are Ozzy’s chances of making the merge?

30%. As much as I think Ozzy and Brad are going to control the early game for Nuku, and perhaps a couple of votes early, I think he is in a unique position in his tribe that is going to allow him to do that.  The moment a swap comes along, his opponents have an easy equation – balancing winning challenges with cutting him before he can make the merge.  I believe that most people will be trying to do the latter, especially given Ozzy is difficult to use as a strategic asset post-merge.


Ozzy’s best chance of success early on is that he recognises that he needs Cirie, and so that he stays close to her.  But, Ozzy just doesn’t seem the type to let bygones be bygones and fully trust Cirie this time around.


Can Ozzy win if he makes the merge?

I really feel like the answer is no, but given his past form I guess I shouldn’t rule it out.


Ozzy only wins if his physical game has gotten him there (a la Mike Holloway).  I don’t think there is any scenario in which Ozzy is rewarded for controlling the game with his strategic and social skills.


And, Ozzy is both getting older and up against a whole lot of good challenge talent in this game.  So, chances of Ozzy making FTC are very slim.


My mother says...

“If you’re really talking how to survive in a strange place that you’ve been shipwrecked on, he’s the guy you would want to be with.”  What my mum did not say is that she has always been a big Ozzy fan. She just didn’t want to admit it because we all mock her for it.


Overall prediction for Ozzy

Ozzy’s getting the boot pre-merge, and he won’t have Redemption Island to save him. Ozzy will have too much of a target on his back, because he is (rightly, based on history) someone who looks like he is a big threat to win, but he doesn’t (in practice) have the skills to keep himself safe.


Cirie Fields

Cirie Fields


My opinion of Cirie

I think it’s inarguable that Cirie is the best player who hasn’t won (sorry, Rob C).


I think it’s arguable that Cirie is the best player to ever play Survivor, full stop.  Cirie had some unlucky breaks go against her at the end of Panama and Micronesia, but it doesn’t take too much imagination to see a very close-by parallel universe in which Cirie got two wins before Sandra did.  She’s a living example of how you cannot win this game without at least a little luck going your way.  She has probably done more to influence her own survival than any other Survivor player in history (although Ciera is up there). Even in Heroes vs Villains, Cirie was close to getting herself into a position of power on the Heroes tribe, before she was undone by JT.


If Jeff Pitman could keep the statistic of ‘most days survived beyond the day that everyone should have voted them out’, I’m sure Cirie would be the tearaway leader.  What’s more, if she isn’t voted out the first time Nuku go to tribal, she’ll only extend that lead, because there’s no way Cirie should be allowed to survive in this game.


This is why I’m overjoyed to see Cirie go out and play again.  After Heroes vs Villains, I felt sure that Cirie would never play again.  People really knew just how good she was at the game by then, and she had a massive target on her back.  She knew she was in a cycle of diminishing returns, and for a while it looked like she had decided her Survivor story was over.  No matter how long it lasts, I am going to do my best to take in every moment of Cirie’s return.


Cirie’s ‘Big Move’

There’s so many that it’s hard to pick one, but her first episode set the tone for everything that was to come.  Engineering her survival on a tribe of 4, when she was on the bottom and clearly the least prepared to be in the wild and to participate in challengers, over Tina Scheer who was much better prepared for the wilderness, was as strong an opening to a Survivor career as it gets.


What are Cirie’s chances of making the merge?

50%. This should be 0%.  There should be no shot at Cirie making the swap, let alone the merge.  She has a terrible tribe set up from the outset, with people you’d expect to see her as an outright threat and look to target her as soon as possible, such as Ozzy and JT.


But, once again, Cirie is revealed as one of the 8 players on the season at last year’s finale, and her going out immediately at the start doesn’t really fit the Jaws analogy. So I think she’s going to get through the early votes, and here is how:


I think Cirie is the one who realises she needs Ozzy and JT to be her shield, and that her path to hanging around in the game is to latch on to them and make sure they are in power.  If she can get Ozzy and JT on board about the need for mutual protection, it doesn’t seem hard to bring in an extra couple of bodies – a self-interested Andrea, Tai who I could see naturally gravitating to both Cirie and Ozzy, Brad who will bond with Ozzy right away, and Sierra who may be a natural fit for Ozzy.


But this requires both Ozzy and JT to put aside their differences with Cirie.  That’s a tall order, and she will have to convince them it’s in their self-interest.


Cirie would have more difficulty at an eventual swap.  I fully expect a swap to three tribes and Cirie’s difficulty in challenges will be harder to hide.  However, even worse is that there isn’t a player on Mana who would have a good reason to keep her around.  Her best chance to get through the swap may even be to work with Mana to get rid of other members of the Nuku tribe.


Cirie probably has to work harder than she’s ever worked before, and that’s saying something.


Can Cirie win if she makes the merge?



I don’t think her chances are that high, and please don’t ask me how she would do it.  Just by being Cirie!  You can’t rule out her ability to make big plays and convince people to work with her in their interests to be able to survive.


If she’s made it all the way to the merge, she’s already got her influence and claws into people in the game, and who knows what she could do from there.


My mother says...

“I wouldn’t say I liked Cirie.  She was quite manipulative.  But fun!”


Overall prediction for Cirie

I think Cirie might be able to convince people like Ozzy and JT to hold off early, but I don’t think it will last.  I think Cirie will go somewhere around 16/17.


Tai Trang

Tai Trang


My opinion of Tai

I love Tai.  He is one of those personalities that transcends the show, a guy with universal popularity in the way Rupert had it in Pearl Islands.  Tai was always going to return, and I can’t wait to see what he does on a return.


Where Tai lacks in some ways is his lack of subtlety.  His strategic ideas have been criticised a bit, but I don’t think any of them were bad on paper, and indeed he made his way to the final three and, if others had done as he wished, he would have had a reasonable control of the game to select the people he wanted there.  However, Tai had no subtlety in the way he went about finding the advantages or trying to use them, and he lost trust and respect as a result.


Tai is a charming guy, and this is something he is aware of.  I think that, the first time around, he hoped that he would we able to progress and win primarily on his charm.  He also probably pushed himself too far down the path of being devious, and in doing that he made the mistake of not being true to himself (which is, I think, essential in convincing a jury to give you the money).


But despite nitpicking Tai’s mistakes and the reasons he lost, he might have won the season if it wasn’t for the identity of the particular individuals who he betrayed.  He’s a very likeable guy.  And I think he’ll be back to charming everyone again this season.


Tai’s ‘Big Move’

Withholding his idol from Scot to prevent him making a superidol.  I already gave that move to Aubry, but it belongs to Tai just as much.


What are Tai’s chances of making the merge?

75%. Tai could have a few issues in making the merge.  First, he does stand out as a threat from his demeanour alone.  He is so likeable, and everyone knows it.  Second, he goes after advantages and not in a subtle way.  It’s easy to end up with a target on your back for doing this (just as Tai had on the Beauty tribe in Kaoh Rong), especially when you are in a tribe of people who aren’t big strategists.  Third, everyone just saw Tai play, and so he will be front of mind for other players.  This makes it harder to hide.


One thing Tai does have going for him is that I could see him getting along with Ozzy.  He is a hard worker, and he has form for gravitating towards with people like Ozzy (in Caleb and Scot).


In Caleb and Aubry, Tai has two potential allies to connect with after a swap, and so this favours him somewhat as well.  If he makes it through the early tribals, I think the swap could be his safest portion of the game.


Can Tai win if he makes the merge?

It’s within the realms of possibility.


I think Tai will be out looking for idols again.  He might not find them, and he’ll still be targeted for doing it, but in this cast I think he gets a little more respect if he survives until the end while doing it.


However, it’s difficult to see Tai as the guy who is given credit for masterminding strategic plans, and this may in part be because of his broken English.  He may come across more as a follower than as a leader, and this is can be a tricky perception to overcome when impressions like that are often made in small things such the way you choose to express yourself and use words to convey meaning.  Tai is at a disadvantage there.


Tai’s path to win only comes if a) he has two people that it’s hard to respect at the end with him or 2) he’s at the end with people who everyone feels very betrayed by.  He’s not the kind of guy who could beat everyone.


My mother says...

“Tai was just so sweet.  He was a genuine person.”


Overall prediction for Tai

I see Tai making the merge, but not lasting a whole lot longer than that.  Maybe out around 9/10. I’m predicting that he will be taken out as an attempt to damage Aubry’s standing, but Tai could just as easily be targeted on his own merit as a threat. 


A bit of hole plugging (there’s other game changers out there...)

So, I hope you’ve enjoyed my predictions.  An Aubry win, a merge tribe dominated by fan favourites... I can’t help but feel like my predictions are the ‘fan service’ version of this season playing out, with a few small exceptions.


In the name of continued fan service, here’s a few people I wish were on the season (and who they should replace in for). I’m excluding people (like Natalie Anderson) where I know the show considered them but they weren’t able to play, and others who the show probably couldn’t get right now even if they wanted to (like Kim Spradlin).  But here are some people who, as far as I know, weren’t in the mix at all, and might well return if they were asked.


Johnny Fairplay is a guy who I do not enjoy watching, and who I’d be happy never to see return to Survivor again, on a personal level.  But, if ever there was a time for him to resurface, this would have been it.  He did genuinely change the course of his season with the Rupert vote out, and it could be argued that his grandmother lie changed the course of Survivor as a whole.  In addition to that, Sandra/Fairplay back on the same season together would be true magic!  There’s a couple of dynamics Survivor has gone out of its way to give a second shot.  This is one that the show should have found a way to make happen.  Fairplay would sub in on the Nuku tribe for Brad Culpepper.


T-Bird Cooper was one of the few who figured out how to use the first ever tribe swap to her advantage, expressing a message across to the other tribe to see her adversary Lindsay Richter eliminated before the merge.  It’s a travesty that T-Bird hasn’t returned to the show yet, and I still can’t figure out how she missed out on Cambodia.  This was a chance for Survivor to right that wrong, and give her another shot.  T-Bird comes in for Sierra-Dawn Thomas.


Yau-Man Chan showed his unique game mind when he tried to make a deal to trade away a car he had just won for future immunity.  Only recently has it started to become common to think about ways to use advantages that are non-traditional, but Yau-Man was at it all the way back in season 14.  Yau-Man might be getting on a bit now, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he’d still jump at the chance to go back and compete again.  Yau-Man replaces Caleb Reynolds.


Neleh Dennis was far from a great player in Marquesas, but she became the first person ever to completely undo the power structure post-merge by flipping on her alliance when she realised she was on the bottom.  This hadn’t been seen on Survivor before, and it certainly changed both the season and the game long term.  Neleh has also remained a fan in the intervening years and so she could well surprise by being a much stronger player.  You could also take Kathy Vavrick-O’Brien in this spot.  Neleh takes Sarah Lacina’s spot.


No doubt these four changes make both tribes older and weakens overall challenge performance (although Mana already starts off a little older).  But, I think the tribes still look fair and balanced after these changes.  In addition, I think the overall cast looks a lot more like a cast of “Game Changers” (although you still have Hali and Troyzan in there... I’ll let you guys try to replace them in the comments!)


Some final predictions (and musings on what should be)



Merge – 13 people, as in Cambodia and Millennials vs Gen X. At this point, my view is that the merge should always be at 13 in a 20 person season and 11 in an 18 person season – these are prime numbers, and they guarantee there is no possibility of any kind of even split between players.  This forces everyone to try to find the majority.  Episode 8 is too late for the merge episode though, so I hope they find a way to see two people off in a pre-merge episode.


Idol hidden – at challenges again, I suspect.  I hope they don’t, though, even though I love it, because I think that this cast will be expecting it.  Hold off on hiding them at challenges for one more season, then bring it back out.  I do, however, like the idea of hiding idol clues at challenges this season, like how Kelley found her second idol in Cambodia.


Idol finders – Malcolm and Tony aren’t going to find any.  They’re going to be watched carefully.   I guess that Sandra, Aubry and Andrea will find idols during the season.


Other twists – There’s bound to be something entirely new yet again, as that is par for the course at the moment.  I hope that they stick with the Legacy Advantage, but tell everyone that such a thing exists out there.  And I’m guessing we’ll see the vote steal again.


Most confessionals – based on my predicted boot order, I’ll guess Jeff.


The boot order based on my predictions – Hali, Debbie, Sarah, Brad, Cirie, Zeke, Ozzy, Tony, JT, Malcolm, Sandra, Tai, Troyzan, Caleb, Andrea, Sierra, Michaela, Jeff, Ciera, Aubry.


Any other predictions you want?  Let me know and I’ll tell you in the comments.  Otherwise, thanks for reading your way to the end of this novella.  Comment away!  Let me know how wrong I am!  Let me know how you hope the season plays out.  Let me know who you would cast on a season called “Game Changers”.  There’s just a month to go until the season starts now, so hold onto your hats, enjoy the preseason, and I’ll see you then!


Ben Martell - The Golden TicketBy day, Ben Martell is a public commercial lawyer from New Zealand.

By night, he moonlights as a self-described Survivor 'expert'.

By day or night, find him on twitter at: @golden8284