Screaming at the Screen - Damnbueno's Survivor 43 recaps
Why subtlety prevails over 'big moves' in Survivor: Part 1
By Damnbueno | Published: September 6, 2022
Survivor Multi-season analysis

Why subtlety prevails over 'big moves' in Survivor: Part 1

For the better part of the last 10 seasons or so, we’ve watched Jeff Probst preach the virtue/necessity of making “Big Moves.” He says things like “You gotta make BIG MOVES if you wanna win Survivor … That’s the kind of BIG MOVE you gotta make … You can’t win unless you make BIG MOVES.” Its as if Probst has copyrighted the phrase “Big Moves” and has to use it to keep it from becoming public domain.

Is Jeff Probst right? Do you have to make a Big Move™ to win Survivor? Is it possible to win without making a BIG MOVE?

I say Jeff Probst is wrong. I say making a BIG MOVES does more to hurt your winning chances than help them. I understand why Probst constantly pushes for players to make Big Moves. The more Big Moves the players make, the more entertaining the broadcast can be. Viewers love watching devastating blindsides, and backstabbing betrayals. I think a lot of players go in hoping to be praised by viewers when they pull off a BIG MOVE, but fail to realize their move has probably cost them jury votes.

So let’s take a look through Survivor history and compare some BIG MOVES to some subtle moves that I think were more effective.

But first, let’s define what a “Subtle Move” is. I say it’s when player A decides on a plan of action with a desired conclusion, then convinces player B to execute their plan. Not only does the plan work, but player B has no idea they’ve been manipulated, and often thinks the plan was their idea in the first place. Here’s a prime example from Heroes vs Villains.

Sandra (player A) vs Russell (player B)

Sandra vs. Russell

At final 12, Boston Rob had just been voted out, leaving Sandra and Courtney in the minority. Coach blamed the next Reward Challenge loss on Sandra after he pushed for her and Courtney to sit out. Sandra layed out her plan to Courtney, saying “Tyson’s gone, Boston Rob’s gone, and all of a sudden we’re on the outs, and its 5-2. Do you want to get even with Coach? Think about it. Russell’s the kind of person who if he finds out someone is gunning for him, he’ll take them out. If one of us is going next, we could put a bug in his ear that Coach is gunning for him. I’m gonna work my magic, and we’re both gonna be here on day 22 & 23.” Later, Sandra and Russell watched Coach and Courtney talking.

Russell: “She was just over there talking to Coach.”
Sandra: “Who, Courtney?”
Russell: “It don’t matter what she says. I will tell them ‘This is how we’re votin',’ and that’s how its gonna be. Its that simple.”
Sandra: “But at the same time, I heard Coach saying he made a mistake and he wished he could go back.”
Russell: “What mistake?”
Sandra: “In letting Rob go home — That he’s sorry he ever made that choice. That’s what he told her (Jerri) and that he wanted to get rid of you. So I don’t know about your homeboy.”
Russell: “He ain’t my homeboy, I don’t trust him. Obviously you can’t trust him because of that right there. He’s goin’ behind my back, sayin’ stuff like that. He’s diggin’ his own grave just like Rob did.”

And just like that, Russell is determined to remove Coach. He’s focused on executing the idea Sandra wanted done in the first place, and Russell thinks it was HIS idea. Truth be told, Russell eventually changed his mind, and voted for Courtney. But by the time he’d changed his mind, Sandra had already convinced Danielle & Parvati to help remove Coach. Since she knew the vote was going the way she wanted, she no longer cared how Russell voted. She didn’t need him to vote for Coach. Her mission was accomplished.

Coach was voted out 4-3, and Russell never knew how she’d manipulated him. This freed her up to manipulate him again later on. Just like Sandra predicted, she and Courtney were still there on days 22 & 23. If Sandra had point blank asked Russell to vote for Coach, he likely wouldn’t have cooperated because Russell doesn’t like being told what to do. But Sandra’s subtlety fooled Russell into thinking HE was making the call all along.

Season #2: The Australian Outback

  • Big Moves: Colby Donaldson
  • Subtle Moves: Tina Wesson

Tina vs. Colby

This season’s cast had the chance to watch the entire Borneo season, and how “villain” Richard Hatch arrogantly declared he’d win the game long before the merge. Probst once said he knew Survivor would be a hit when “the bad guy” won. Hatch’s win had a strong effect on how the season 2 players strategized. Nobody did this better than Tina. All through the season, Tina subtly repeated her “good guys should win” mantra. This paid off for her at two major moments.

First, as Tina and Colby’s Ogakor tribe entered their third Tribal Council, Colby was originally aligned with Jerri, Amber and Mitchell. Tina and Keith were in a 4-2 hole. But Tina subtly convinced Colby to side with the “good guys” instead of sticking with Jerri, whom Tina positioned as a “bad guy.” Her pitch worked, and Colby forced a tie vote. Mitchell lost the tiebreaker, and left the game. Tina went from facing a 4-1 disadvantage, to gaining a 100% loyal ally in Colby, and taking a 3-2 edge over Jerri & Amber.

The second time was at final 3. Colby won the final Immunity Challenge, and had to choose who to take to the finals – “good guy” Tina, or “bad guy” Keith. Colby took Tina, and Tina won the million by a 4-3 vote. Jerri ended up voting for Tina, and said she did it because (paraphrasing) “Tina manipulated Colby into making a bad move at the end.”

Now Colby didn’t do anything that would qualify as a “Big Move” by today’s standards, but for season 2, he played bigger than anyone else. He set a Survivor record by winning 8 individual challenges (3 Rewards and 5 Immunities). The more he won, the more the other players (and future jurors) started to resent him. I think his streak bonded everyone else who didn’t want Colby to win everything. They couldn’t stop him from winning challenges, but they could stop him from winning the million. In the end, “good guy” Tina’s subtle moves prevailed over Colby’s Big Moves.

Season #9: Vanuatu

  • Big Moves: Ami Cusack
  • Subtle Moves: Chris Daugherty

Chris and Eliza

Vanuatu repeated the Men vs. Women theme from season 6, The Amazon. Ami bought into the theme completely, but Chris didn’t. Ami was fully committed to maintaining a fiercely loyal, all-women’s alliance. While she wasn’t a heavy-handed “my way or the highway” type of leader, she was undoubtedly firm in pressing the importance of loyalty. On the other hand, Chris knew if he honored the men vs women theme, he’d be alienating future jurors. So he emphasized establishing trust and communication with everyone, regardless of the season’s theme. Like Tina, Chris’s approach paid off at two major moments.

Chris joined a majority alliance on the first day — something that was unheard of prior to Vanuatu. So when Chris single-handedly caused the men to lose the first Immunity challenge, his alliance protected him because they knew he’d help keep them safe later on. Chris’s approach paid off even bigger after the merge. The women held a 6-4 majority, and began Pagonging the men. Rory, Sarge, and Chad were the first three to go. Chris seemed doomed. But his subtle social game had Scout, Twila and Julie all lobbying Ami to keep him in the game instead of the annoying Eliza.

Ami shot herself in the foot when she pulled off a Big Move. After a swap, the women on Ami’s tribe held a 5-2 edge, and promptly removed Travis after she caught him trying to signal one of the men at a challenge. She was being true to her “stay loyal to the women” mindset. But she promptly broke it at the next vote. When Lisa asked Ami where some manioc roots could be found “in case you’re not around,” Ami decided Lisa wasn’t being loyal, and convinced the women (including Eliza) to blindside Lisa. Her Big Move worked perfectly. Lisa was blindsided, and Rory stayed. But it eventually blew up in her face.

All the women realized Ami wasn’t quite as dedicated to eliminating all the men before the women as they thought. On the other tribe, Chris worked on building trust with Twila and Julie. Then at the merge, Chris prioritized doing the same with the women with whom he hadn’t yet shared a camp.

So after the merge, when Chris was the only man left, it wasn’t difficult for Chris to convince Eliza (at Twila’s prompting) that Ami was about to betray her. Eliza remembered what happened to Lisa. Eliza agreed to help blindside Leann instead (Ami had immunity), and Ami’s game was all but done. Ami was voted out right after Leann. In this case, Chris’s subtle move of establishing trust and communication with everyone prevailed over Ami’s Big Moves of blindsiding Lisa, and attempting to blindside Eliza.

Season #11: Guatemala

  • Big Moves: Stephenie LaGrossa
  • Subtle Moves: Danni Boatwright

Stephenie and Danni

Guatemala was the first season to mix rookies with popular returning players. In this case, the veterans were Stephenie LaGrossa and Bobby Jon Drinkard from the previous season, Palau. The Guatemala cast had the chance to watch the entire Palau season. The cast cheered the returnees when they appeared. The starstruck cast largely followed Stephenie and Bobby Jon’s lead. Danni was one of the smarter players that season, and suspected producers were leaking information to the popular returnees, so she stopped discussing her strategy in confessionals. But she had two shining examples of subtle manipulation I consider to be textbook cases, and among the best in Survivor history.

In Palau, Stephenie blamed her loss in part on herself. She felt she wasn’t as assertive as she needed to be, and vowed not to repeat her mistake. She overcorrected, and became bossy, inflexible, and a little paranoid in Guatemala. Danni didn’t get to spend much time with Stephenie before the merge, but took full advantage of sharing a Reward excursion with her, and focused on getting to know Stephenie. Right after that Reward trip, Stephenie led a blindside on Jamie — a member of her alliance — instead of someone from the opposing alliance who was in the minority. She made a Big Move.

Danni also became fast friends with Stephenie’s #1 ally Rafe, and used that relationship to her advantage. When Rafe told Danni how upset Judd was about the blindside on Jamie, Danni went straight to Stephenie. Danni subtly told Stephenie “He (Judd) was still mad about the Jamie situation. He felt betrayed. He said ‘Don’t think I don’t know who’s in control. We’re all squirrels trying to get a nut here, we’re all trying to win a million dollars, and the key is, you know, to eliminate the strongest people.’

Stephenie’s paranoia kicked in, and she concluded Judd was coming after her (he wasn’t). Stephenie was convinced Judd had to go, so she pulled off another Big Move and blindsided Judd. Side note: Judd had one of the most memorable exits in Survivor history, grumbling “I hope you all get bit by a freakin’ crocodile. Scumbags!”

In this case, Danni’s moves of extracting information from unsuspecting players and using it to turn Stephenie against Judd is a masterful example of subtle move execution. Judd left the game furious at Stephenie, and much more open to voting for Danni at the end, which is exactly what happened. Danni also emerged with stronger trust from Stephenie (who later opted to keep Danni over Cindy and Lydia). Stephenie never suspected she’d been played by Danni. Stephenie thought blindsiding Judd was her idea.

Danni’s subtlety paid off even bigger at the end of the game. Danni bonded so well with Rafe, they made a final 2 pact. This pact also helped Danni survive the final 5 and final 4 votes, as Rafe wanted to keep Danni around too.

Season #14: Fiji

  • Big Moves: Yau-Man Chan
  • Subtle Moves: Earl Cole

Yau-Man and Earl

I’d be remiss if I didn’t spotlight the absolute King of Subtlety, Earl Cole. (Also, Jeff Pitman wouldn’t publish this column without including Earl.) Earl’s moves were so subtle, the Loyal Order of Subtle People didn’t even notice them. I’ll just list a few in bullet point form.

• Dreamz decided on Day 1 that he wanted to form an alliance with all the Black players (Earl, Anthony, Erica, and Cassandra). Earl simply followed basic Survivor strategy and said “yes,” when someone pitched a deal. While this isn’t quite a “move,” it paid off all game long when Dreamz constantly brought information to Earl. In fact, the one time Dreamz DIDN’T come to Earl, Earl sensed the disturbance in the force, and advised Yau-Man he might have to use his idol. That’s exactly what Yau-Man did when he saved himself at final 6.

• When Earl found out an idol was buried in the middle of camp, he convinced the entire tribe to go retrieve their boat so his partner Yau-Man could find the idol. The benefits to Earl? 1) He bonds with everyone while they’re gone. 2) Yau-Man doesn’t get to bond with anyone. 3) Yau-Man not only finds the idol, but vows to share it with Earl if he needs it. As Yau-Man confirmed in confessional “My plan now is to let Earl know. He engineered this whole boat saving party for me. I agree to share the use of this idol when the time comes with him.” As Earl said with a subtle grin “That worked out just fine.” Earl had stronger trust from everyone on the tribe, and knowledge and access to an idol.

• At final 9, Earl had just lost trusted ally Michelle in a split tribe, 5-person merge vote. He had to rebuild his alliance. Boo offered to defect to Earl’s side, and once again, Earl said “yes,” even though he didn’t trust Boo. Earl advised Cassandra and Yau-Man of his plan. Cassandra won a Reward, took Dreamz and Boo along, and recruited Boo to their side — just as Earl wanted. Boo in turn recruited Stacy, and Earl was in the majority. Earl used the info brought to him by Dreamz to discover Alex had an idol given to him by Mookie. Eventually, Earl’s new alliance blindsided Edgardo — the one player they knew didn’t have the idol. Earl emerged with trust from Boo, Stacy, and Dreamz, and two sitting ducks in Alex and Mookie, who just lost their idol.

Yau-Man of course made the biggest move of the game when he won a truck and offered it to Dreamz in exchange for Final 4 Immunity if they both were still in the game, and Dreamz won the challenge. Dreamz accepted the deal without thinking about it. When Dreamz realized that season would have a final three instead of a final two, he knew keeping his word would result in Yau-Man voting him out. So Dreamz broke his word, and kept his Final 4 Immunity. But Dreamz still trusted Earl, and warned him to vote for Yau-Man if he kept the Immunity necklace. That’s exactly what Earl did.

Survivor Fiji winner Earl Cole

Earl’s subtlety put him in the finals with none of the jurors upset at him, at least half the jurors upset at Dreamz, and none of the jurors ever expressing much respect for Cassandra’s game. Earl locked up the first unanimous Survivor win 10-0-0.

Season #24: One World

  • Big moves: Several players
  • Subtle Moves: Kim Spradlin

Kim vs several

If Earl is the King of Survivor Subtlety, then without a doubt Kim is the Queen. (Apologies to Sandra, the true Queen of Survivor, but she can play big or subtle and still succeed.) Like Earl, Kim’s strength was in being able to form strong, trusting relationships very quickly. Everyone wanted Kim on their side, and Kim used this to her advantage all game long.

Like Vanuatu, One World began as a Men vs. Women season. However, this time around, both tribes lived on the same beach, which enabled them to interact with each other regularly. That season’s two best players — Kim and Sabrina — wisely sat back and let the other women (Alicia, Kat, Chelsea) get into fights with the men. They both knew the value of giving themselves as many options as possible. These options would include working with men later on. So when the tribes were swapped, Kim found herself on a tribe with Troyzan, Mike and Jay. She promptly built trust with all of them. Kim took her time to decide if she wanted to stick with the women, or a mixed alliance with the men.

Troyzan on the other hand, played big. Well, at first, he played subtle, and watched “Big” players like Matt and Colton disappear early. But after the swap, he went big. His first mistake was confiding in Kim that he didn’t trust Mike, and didn’t want to include him in their post-merge alliance. Troyzan was planning a blindside on Mike. So once Kim decided she’d rather stick with the women, she had all the ammunition she needed. Kim and Sabrina shared their plan during a Reward trip, then after a 6-6, even gender merge, Kim went to work on Troyzan in this conversation:

Kim vs Troyzan

Kim: “Troyzan, I just thought you should know that Mike is subtly planting the seed in lots of people’s minds that you’re going to win, and we can’t let you make it that long. So I just feel like we gotta get Mike out of here because he’s the only person that could pull Leif, Christina, Alicia …”
Troyzan: “Right.”
Kim: “And if he gets one more vote, you’re going home, then we’re all going home.”
Troyzan: “That pisses me off. I hate that guy.”
Kim: “So I just think if he doesn’t win (Immunity) today, we all blindside him.”
Troyzan: “I’m gonna try to win because …”
Kim: “Just don’t tell him, ’cause we need him to feel really sure that he’s staying.” .

Mike gets blindsided, just as Kim and Sabrina wanted. They both maintained Troyzan’s trust too, which set them up perfectly to remove either Troyzan or Jay at the next vote (it ended up being Jay). The women gained the numerical advantage. And the best part? Mike left the game without a trace of anger or resentment towards Kim or Sabrina. He’s actually upset at Troyzan.

Once Troyzan realized he’d been played, he tried playing even bigger, proclaiming “This is my island” when he saved himself with an Immunity win. Instead of getting a deed to the island, all Troyzan bought himself was resentment from the remaining players, who promptly voted him out at their next chance.

Kim had planned on going to the finals with Alicia and Kat. She felt they’d be easier to beat than Sabrina and Chelsea. But Sabrina saw to it Kat got blindsided at final 7, so Kim had to adjust. She realized Alicia had Tarzan’s vote in her pocket, and recognized the danger. Alicia could use Tarzan’s vote to remove Chelsea. So Kim beat her to the punch and subtly manipulated Alicia into turning against Tarzan in this conversation:

Kim and Alicia

Alicia: “Tarzan was like ‘If Kim comes back (from a Reward trip) singing a different tune about who we should vote out, we know she’s a traitor.’”
Kim: “You see? He’s trying to get y’all to take him instead of me now. This is interesting. I don’t know, I just …”
Alicia: “Maybe this was his plan to play stupid, then all of a sudden …”
Kim: “I know, that’s the only thing. If he wound up playing us, and winning this thing, I can’t think of anything worse. The men win in the end? The thought of that makes me cringe.”
Alicia: “Yeah.”
Kim: “He told me, he was like ‘You guys obviously you’ll take me out at 4. I know that’ yada, yada, yada ‘I’m gonna convince the jury to vote for you.’”
Alicia: “See, and he told me that to me too.”
Kim: “He’s playing us. Its such bullshit, its such fucking bullshit!”
Alicia: “He’s playing us.”
Kim: “Friggin’ Tarzan! We were gonna get Tarzaned and look like friggin’ morons … I’m freaking out. I just realized, I almost got my ass voted out by Tarzan.”
Alicia: “Yeah, you did.”

This was Survivor perfection. Kim knew Alicia had a short temper, and was more dedicated to the men vs women theme. She used Alicia’s temper against her, and removed Alicia’s pocket vote. Alicia thought removing Tarzan was her idea, and she’d convinced Kim to join in. Tarzan left the game knowing how well Kim played Alicia, and that’s exactly what he told the existing jurors at Ponderosa.

Season #41: Survivor 41

  • Big Moves: Deshawn Radden, Richard Foyé
  • Subtle Move: Erika Casupanan


Erika talked about looking like a sheep but playing like a lion. She never played big at all, but she did have one moment of subtle manipulation that I think saved her in the short term, and gained the respect she needed to get the votes in the end.

At final 8, Shantel was part of a 4-person alliance with Danny, Deshawn and Liana. She also had a strong alliance with Ricard. Erika, Heather and Xander weren’t seen as consequential by the others. Ricard, then the duo of Danny & Deshawn independently decided to make the Big Move of blindsiding Shantel. They thought nothing of simply informing Erika of their decision and telling her how to vote. After all, she’d been largely compliant with their ideas most of the game. Deshawn simply told her the majority would be voting for Shantel.

But Erika realized if Shantel got suspicious and played her idol, then Erika would be going home if Shantel and Liana voted for her. She couldn’t have that, so she took a subtle route, and convinced Danny to split votes between Shantel and Liana. This way, Erika would be safe no matter who Liana and Shantel voted for. Erika figured if Danny was willing to turn on Shantel, he might feel the same about turning on Liana. She was right.

The move worked perfectly. Danny sold Erika’s plan to Deshawn, even though Danny was suspicious of Erika. Shantel held on to her idol and got blindsided. Erika emerged with more trust from Xander and Ricard. Liana ended up furious at Danny and Deshawn. Erika ended up in a 4-3 majority. And most importantly, Shantel left the game a lot more likely to vote for Erika than for Danny and Deshawn, who she felt betrayed her. While Erika didn’t plan this move in advance like some of the other examples I provided, hers is a great example of reading a situation accurately, and knowing what adjustments to make to improve your position.

So there you have it. Six examples of how subtle moves can have a greater long-term benefit to your game than any flashy Big Move that Probst will put in the promos (Did you hear? Ciera voted out her mother!) In part 2, I’ll spotlight how a subtle game-playing style is more effective than an aggressive, big playing style. I’ll highlight Vecepia, Rob Cesternino, Cirie, Todd, Natalie Anderson, Tommy, and Omar.

I’d love to know what you think in the comments.

damnbuenoDamnbueno got his nickname in 8th grade Spanish class when his friend shouted out "You're pretty damn good at Spanish." The teacher insisted he say it in Spanish, so the friend said "Esto es damn bueno en Espanol." The nickname stuck. These days, when he's not forgetting his 8th grade Spanish, Damnbueno is indulging his obsession with all things Survivor. Reach him in the comments section here at True Dork Times.