Screaming at the Screen - Damnbueno's Survivor 43 recaps
Why subtlety prevails over 'big moves' in Survivor: Part 2
By Damnbueno | Published: September 12, 2022
Survivor Multi-season analysis

Why subtlety prevails over 'big moves' in Survivor: Part 2

In my last column, I took a look at how subtle moves executed by Sandra, Earl, Kim, Chris Daugherty, Danni and Erika helped them win the game over those who made Jeff Probst’s preferred flashy “Big Moves.” This time around, I’ll take a slightly different approach and compare subtle playing styles to bigger, aggressive styles.

I believe a subtle style will help you win the million a lot more often than a “Big” style. It won’t guarantee a win of course, but if you do it right, more often than not, a subtle style will put you in a much better position than an aggressive one will. In other words, I say substance over flash. The flash will get you on camera more. It might even get you invited back to play again. But more often than not, the substance will get you closer to the million.

Season #4: Marquesas

  • Played big: Boston Rob Mariano
  • Played subtle: Vecepia Towery-Robinson

Marquesas: Vecepia vs Boston Rob

Boston Rob and Vecepia started out on the same eight-person tribe. Boston Rob didn’t like that his tribe gravitated towards Hunter’s leadership. Vecepia played subtle, and focused on getting to know her tribemates, earning their trust, and working hard around camp. Boston Rob wanted to be the “leader,” saying in confessional “Its important for me to have people on my team that are gonna do what I tell them to do, and not know that I’m tellin’ them to do it. It doesn’t matter if my team is stronger physically, or even stronger mentally. Just that they obey.”

Boston Rob got his wish after leading a blindside on Hunter. But his time as leader was short-lived when he, Sean, and Vecepia were swapped to the Rotu tribe, and switched camps. Their new Rotu tribe held an 8-5 majority over Maraamu, but Rob, Vecepia and Sean were at a 5-3 disadvantage. Boston Rob took dead aim at Rotu’s leader, John, while Vecepia took a subtle approach, and got to know her new tribemates. Vecepia learned all she could about original Rotu’s tribe dynamics. Boston Rob confronted John, who wasn’t intimidated.

Boston Rob confronts John

Once the merge arrived, John saw to it Boston Rob was the first one voted out, and Vecepia voted with them, earning more trust from the majority. Vecepia focused on getting to know her new swapped tribemates Kathy, Paschal and Neleh.

In a deleted scene on the DVD, Vecepia told Paschal and Neleh “They (John, Tammy, Zoe and the General) came to me about six or seven days after we got here, and told me they wanted me to be part of their fivesome. I said ‘If you don’t lie to me, I’ll go 5 with you. Then once we get to 5, its every man for himself.” Even Sean was surprised to hear this. Kathy, Neleh & Paschal suspected their loyal Rotu tribe wasn’t as united as they thought. Then later, when John’s majority knocked out Sean, Vecepia, Kathy, Neleh and Paschal in a “Chop Three Ropes” Immunity Challenge, all it took was a few knowing glances from Vecepia and Sean for Paschal and Neleh to finally be sold.

Vecepia and Sean on the bench

They realized if they stuck with Rotu, they’d be doomed to a 5th, 6th and 7th place finish. So they aligned with Vecepia and Sean, blindsided John, then pagonged the rest of their Rotu tribe. Vecepia’s subtle manipulation got her in a 5-3 majority, with trust from everyone in her alliance. John, Tammy, Zoe and the General were all upset at Neleh, Paschal and Kathy. And none of them knew Vecepia was the one who flipped the game on it’s head.

Season #6: The Amazon

  • Played big: Several players
  • Played subtle: Rob Cesternino

Rob and Matteo

Rob Cesternino really revolutionized the way future Survivor players approached the game. He saw the value in forming strategic alliances with as many players as possible, and played a masterful, subtle game. The Amazon was the first Men vs Women season, and some of the players took the theme to heart. Roger embraced a leadership role with the men, and liked to give orders. Dave also played big and tried to stand out in the challenges. Deena and JoAnna tried to be leaders too. But Rob subtly positioned himself as everyone’s #1 trusted ally — their loyal sidekick.

His subtlety enabled him to prevent others from discovering his duplicity. Since so many players thought Rob was following their lead, they had no problem giving information to him. The members of one of his alliances had no idea he had another alliance with others. This paid off shortly after the merge. Rob had a partnership with Deena, who was still dedicated to eliminating the other men. After Roger and Dave became the first two merge boots, Deena got power hungry. She took dead aim at Alex, unaware that Rob had an alliance with Alex, Jenna and Heidi. Deena even let Matt win Immunity because she was so confident she’d be able to remove Alex.

Rob discusses the Alex blindside with Deena and Christy

But Rob realized Deena was getting too bossy, and might be difficult to influence later on, so he blindsided Deena. Deena left the game thinking Alex had outsmarted her. Rob kept his cover too. None of the remaining players knew he pulled the strings to remove Deena. And Rob kept his two remaining alliances secret from each other. He was in full control of the game, and nobody knew it yet. After the Deena blindside, Rob could influence every vote in the game, yet none of the other players saw him as a threat.

Season #12: Panama - Exile Island

  • Played big: Terry Deitz
  • Played subtle: Cirie Fields

Cirie vs Terry

I could probably devote an entire column to Cirie’s subtle moves, especially in her second season, Micronesia. Cirie is probably the best manipulator Survivor has ever seen, and is excellent at keeping her moves undercover. But the most pure test of any Survivor player is when they’re a rookie, so I’ll spotlight some moments from Cirie’s first season in Panama – Exile Island.

The 16 players in Panama were initially divided by gender and age. Cirie found herself on the “older women’s” tribe. As the least equipped to survive on her own, Cirie had “first boot” written all over her. Tina on the other hand had “expert outdoorsman” written all over her. But Cirie convinced Melinda and Ruth Marie that none of them would be able to beat Tina for the million, and they could survive fine without her.

Ruth Marie and Cirie

Cirie emerged from that vote as the most secure of the three. Melinda and Ruth-Marie didn’t know it, but they’d just handed control of the tribe to Cirie. But then there was a tribe swap, and she had to start all over. After Cirie and Melinda joined the Casaya tribe, they found themselves in a 4-3 minority (with Bob Dawg), at the mercy of the joyously dysfunctional alliance of Aras, Shane, Danielle and Courtney Marit. A nervous Cirie focused on earning trust from her new tribemates. Cirie watched Shane, Danielle and Courtney alternate from trying to kill each other, to vowing loyalty against the other tribe, while Aras tried to play referee. There were cracks to exploit, and Cirie found all of them.

Pilot Terry on the other hand, only seemed to know how to play big. He spent a lot of time telling his tribe about his Fighter Pilot days, and expected them to acknowledge his superiority. Terry was the classic Alpha Male, “my way or the highway” aggressive leader Probst drools over. Terry barked orders during challenges, and in camp. When Sally lost some of their fishing gear, Terry scolded her like she was a 5-year old.

Terry got sent to Exile, and found the Idol (which was an overpowered Idol like Yul’s in Cook Islands, and Tony’s in Cagayan). But unlike Yul, Terry didn’t figure out how to protect his entire alliance with it. I’m not sure if he was ever interested in protecting anyone but himself, anyway.

Cirie vs Terry

That season’s merge saw Cirie’s Casaya tribe holding a 6-4 advantage. Terry played big, and gave everyone orders on how to build the shelter, prompting Aras to say “We’ll let ‘Captain America’ take the lead.” Terry also greatly overestimated his ability to influence the Casaya members. He tried and failed to recruit Bruce, Danielle, and Cirie, and had no idea how his pushy approach was making him more resented.

Cirie delivered my favorite line about Terry’s pitch to recruit her, saying “I don’t think he’s in the position to offer me anything. It was like a dictionary salesman. I already have an encyclopedia collection here, and you want to sell me a dictionary?”

Dictionary salesman

One of Cirie’s most masterful subtle moves came at final 6. Terry won a Reward challenge. He took Danielle and Courtney with him, and sent Aras to Exile Island, leaving Cirie alone in camp with Shane. Terry tried again (ultimately failing) to recruit Danielle, but Courtney was interested. Back in camp, Shane confided to Cirie how much he’d love to sit next to the annoying Courtney in the finals.

Cirie wanted to sit next to the equally-annoying Shane, so she came up with a Survivor innovation. Cirie removed someone else’s goat in order to improve her chances of making the finals. Cirie convinced Danielle that Terry also wanted Courtney in the finals. Cirie told Danielle “If we take away the person he wants to take to the end … he doesn’t have to know how we’re gonna vote, he can think we’re gonna vote Aras. You can’t let him dictate what you’re gonna do — ‘9 times out of 10 I’m gonna take Courtney because I know I can beat her. I’ll tell Danielle whoever comes in second, that’s who goes.’ Yeah right. And I have a bridge in Brooklyn to sell you.”

Cirie filled Aras in on their plan, and Courtney was blindsided. Terry and Courtney thought Cirie was voting for Aras. Shane thought Cirie was voting for Danielle. When Courtney left, her head was spinning and had no idea what happened. Terry and Shane lost their finals goat. Courtney was still open to voting for Cirie at the end. And Shane, Aras and Danielle were all open to sitting next to Cirie in the finals. And nobody knew how Cirie was arranging the puzzle pieces yet.

Season #15: China

  • Played big: Peih-Gee Law
  • Played subtle: Todd Herzog

Peih-Gee vs Todd

Todd was so far ahead of this pack strategically, at one point, he wondered if he was the only one actually playing the game. But a good way to compare Todd and Peih-Gee’s games is by looking at how they chose to deal with that season’s two strongest athletes — James and Aaron. James and Aaron started the game on the same Fei Long tribe as Todd. Then on day 13, both were swapped to Peih-Gee’s Zhan Hu tribe.

Todd outlined his plan from the start. He wanted to align with one strong player (who turned out to be James), one player weaker than him (Courtney) and one he could absolutely trust (Amanda). Once he secured his alliance, he wanted to set up Aaron for failure by suggesting Aaron become their official “leader.” Aaron reluctantly accepted the role, thanks to Todd’s subtle manipulation.

Once Aaron and James were swapped to Zhan Hu, Peih-Gee decided they both had to go. She and Jaime threw a challenge so they could remove one of their two new members.

Peih-Gee and Jaime

Aaron was her first victim. Why did she choose Aaron over James? Because she’d found out Aaron was Fei Long’s “leader.” Her move worked perfectly, but Jaime got overconfident and admitted to James at Tribal Council that she and Peih-Gee threw the challenge. James was furious. There was no way he’d ever stay loyal to them even if he survived the next vote. Peih-Gee’s plan blew up again when she realized her swapped original tribemates Frosti and Sherea weren’t staying loyal to her either.

Meanwhile, Todd gathered enough information to discover where each tribe’s Idol could be found. He and Amanda found the Fei Long Idol, then kidnapped James after winning a Reward challenge.

Todd and James

Todd gave his Idol to James (a Survivor first, by the way), and showed James how to find the Zhan Hu Idol. Todd also planned to throw a challenge, but his intention was to save James. While the attempted thrown challenge failed, Todd still emerged in a stronger position. James was completely loyal to Todd for the rest of the game, even though he didn’t return Todd’s Idol.

There are many moving parts that eventually added up to Todd’s win. He actually didn’t enter the finals in the strongest position. But the fact that Todd’s moves leaned more towards the subtle variety as compared to Peih-Gee’s attempted Big Moves, are ultimately why Todd remained in a solid position, while Peih-Gee’s moves weakened her position.

Season #29: San Juan del Sur

  • Played big: Jeremy Collins
  • Played subtle: Natalie Anderson

Jeremy and Natalie

Natalie Anderson was playing from behind in this Blood vs Water season almost from the start. While she had experience being on a Reality TV competition show (she and her twin Nadiya were on The Amazing Race), she was a Survivor rookie, and suffered a setback when her sister was voted out first overall — primarily because of their reputation as strong players on Amazing Race.

Natalie and Nadiya

Jeremy earned a second appearance, and played a masterful game in Cambodia two seasons later. But part of the reason for his strong second effort is that he learned from the mistakes he made in San Juan del Sur.

Jeremy was aggressive, and volunteered to run a day 1, two-person challenge against a member of the opposing tribe. Then he was shocked to learn he’d be competing against his wife Val.

Jeremy and Val

Jeremy killed the challenge, which resulted in Val being sent to Exile, and Jeremy being labeled a challenge beast. He also had to send another member from his Hunahpu tribe to join her, so he sent Keith Nale. Right off the bat, Jeremy’s decision to play big blew up in his face, and he gave himself several disadvantages: 1) Everyone knew he was a tough competitor; 2) the one player he could trust completely couldn’t bond with her tribe or join an alliance; and 3) one of his new tribemates had reason to be upset with him for sending him away. Natalie on the other hand, kept her mouth shut when Probst asked for volunteers. She had time to join an alliance.

Jeremy and Natalie both made it to the merge, but because of their contrasting playing styles, most saw Jeremy as Hunahpu’s leader, and Natalie as a mere follower. Josh led the opposing alliance, and took aim at Jeremy, but was thwarted when Julie quit the game. Jeremy removed Josh at the next vote, and thought he’d convinced a majority to boot Keith next. But Jeremy also concluded his alliance partner Jon had found an Idol and didn’t tell him. Jeremy confronted Jon, who did indeed have an Idol, but told Jeremy he didn’t.

Natalie and Jeremy confront Jon

Jon got nervous, and asked Missy to help blindside Jeremy, who left next.

Jeremy got voted out because he played big. He established himself as a physical threat early on, and was also too strategically aggressive. Natalie didn’t become a target because she played subtle. I think they were both effective at influencing how others voted, but since Natalie wasn’t as forceful, she didn’t make herself a target like Jeremy did.

To Jeremy’s credit, he absolutely learned from every mistake he made in San Juan Del Sur. He corrected all of them, and played what I consider one of the 5 best games of Survivor ever when he won in his 2nd try in Cambodia. He played a much more subtle game, shielding himself with others (like Joey Amazing) who were playing big.

Season #39: Island of the Idols

  • Played big: Aaron Meredith
  • Played subtle: Tommy Sheehan

Tommy and Aaron

Tommy played a masterful game, but it gets overlooked because of all the ugliness that surrounded that season. So I wanted to spotlight one moment for the Tommy Appreciation Society. Also, comparing Tommy and Aaron — who are both tall, muscular men — offers a good contrast of how a bigger guy’s social game can offset their perceived physical intimidation factor.

Aaron and Missy were on the Lairo tribe, and formed a solid partnership. The two of them functioned as strategic leaders on their tribe, leading the decision to vote out Chelsea, and later on Jamal. But Aaron played a little bigger, taking the spotlight role in challenges four times.

Tommy played with the unpredictable Noura on the Vokai tribe. Several dismissed her because of her bizarre behavior and even more bizarre decisions. Many tried to put her vote in their pocket (Molly, Jamal, Kellee), only to find themselves on the wrong side of the vote when Noura changed her mind without warning. Still others simply dismissed Noura, and never even hinted they’d take her seriously. Like Aaron, Tommy also influenced the voting, but didn’t focus on this aspect until after the merge. Pre-merge, he worked on building trusting relationships.

Aaron, Missy and Tommy all ended up on the same tribe after a swap. Again, Aaron took the solo spotlight roles in challenges, while Tommy was happy to hang back and let others shine. He only stepped into a spotlight role if someone got tired, or failed at the task first. By playing big, Aaron positioned himself as aggressive and competitive. But Tommy positioned himself as much less of a threat, and appeared easier to beat.

After the merge, Aaron won the first two Immunity Challenges, increasing his threat level. He got voted out as soon as he didn’t have Immunity. Tommy admittedly sandbagged in challenges from the start, knowing that as a bigger, muscular male, most might be even more intimidated by him if he did well in challenges.

Tommy and Noura

But when Noura won the Final 4 Immunity Challenge, suddenly she had the power to decide who’d be facing the fire-making challenge. Tommy’s subtlety and sandbagging paid off as he was easily able to convince Noura he wouldn’t be able to beat her target Lauren at making fire. Noura threw Dean in against Lauren, hoping he’d eliminate who she thought was the biggest threat to win the game.

Tommy’s subtlety and sandbagging paid off at this final 4 decision. Noura believed Dean had a better chance of beating Lauren. All game long, Tommy treated Noura with respect, and gave her the impression he cared about what she thought, even though he likely thought she was a whack job. Noura liked and trusted Tommy more than Dean or Lauren. Tommy ended up in the finals with the game’s biggest goat (Noura) and Dean, who ended up playing bigger than Tommy down the stretch. Dean tried to impress the jury with his Immunity wins, Idol and Idol Nullifier, but the jury didn’t care. They preferred Tommy’s strong social game. Tommy got 8 out of 10 Jury votes for the win.

Season #42: Survivor 42

  • Played big: Omar Zaheer
  • Played subtle: Omar Zaheer

Omar Zaheer

Are you confused? Are you wondering how could Omar play subtle AND big? I’ll answer that in a couple of paragraphs, but first here’s some background info.

Omar had been executing great subtle moves all season long. When the merge came, Omar had lost his vote, but his split squad had been given Immunity. He was content to sit back and watch, but when he found out the consensus pick was to remove Maryanne, he saw this as bad for his game. Maryanne was holding an Idol and an Extra Vote, and had offered to share them with Omar, Lindsay and Jonathan. Lydia was a member of the 8-person majority, which included Jonathan. Omar had a seemingly innocuous conversation with Lydia, in which she appeared indecisive about who to vote for between Maryanne or Jonathan.

Omar saw his opportunity to save Maryanne. First, he warned his original alliance partners Jonathan and Lindsay that Lydia was going after Jonathan. Then he told Maryanne everyone knew about her Idol. Then he told Drea how Lydia was already turning against their new majority alliance. Once he had all of them on board to boot Lydia, Omar closed it out by going after Hai and Mike. Hai had previously considered drawing rocks to save Lydia, so this wouldn’t be an easy task. But Omar convinced Hai and Mike that Lydia was already planting seeds of “going after the bigger players.” Their egos sufficiently stroked, Hai and Mike agreed to blindside Lydia.

Later, Omar took aim at Hai. All game long, Mike talked about how he was a man of his word, and wouldn’t lie to anyone. Hai pressured him into helping vote out Rocksroy (another plan initiated by Omar), but Omar didn’t know where Mike stood on that decision … until Mike started running his mouth in this conversation while Hai was away:

Omar and Mike

Mike: “Was that forced down your throat tonight or not?”
Omar: “Umm …”
Mike: “I gotta be honest with you, I didn’t know it was comin’.”
Omar: “I don’t like if you felt pressured to do that.”
Mike: “I felt horrible about it.”
Omar: “Yeah, but you’re a good dude man. Don’t worry about that. But what really bothers me is that you’re bothered by how it went down.”
Mike: “Yeah. I just don’t like that I had to lie to him. You know how I feel about that.”
Omar: “I know how you feel about that.”

Omar didn’t say or do anything spectacular here, he just listened to Mike repeated whatever Mike said, and expressed empathy. But Omar knew exactly what to do with that information, saying in confessional “But I do want you (Mike) to be a little bit leery of Mr. Hai. Mikey no likey. That lets me know maybe he’s starting to not like how Hai is running things. So over the next few days, my plan is going to be to bring Mike closer to me, and sever his relationship with Hai. Hai has given me enough ammunition to do that.” Later, when Lindsay won a Reward trip, and took Omar and Mike with her, Omar moved in for the kill.

Omar: “Hai came to me and said ‘Mike will do anything I say. He is my puppet.’ And that’s why I was afraid to talk bad about him with you, because he says he has you in his back pocket.”
Mike: “Listen, I’m tired of him trying to play my game.”
Omar: “Yeah.”
Mike: “I’m done. He’s a liar. Do you know how I know you’re tellin’ the truth? Because what you’re saying makes a lot of sense to me, and I believe it. You know what? He thinks I’m stupid. I’m not stupid, I was dumb like a fox with him.”

Omar’s plan was clinched when Lindsay won Immunity over Hai’s target Jonathan. Hai got blindsided, and never saw it coming. Omar emerged with more trust from Mike than anyone else. He was easily the most trusted player in the game. Omar’s move here was similar to Kim’s move to use Troyzan to blindside Mike in One World, and Danni’s using Stephenie to blindside Judd in Guatemala.

So why is some of Omar’s subtle play also considered big play? Here’s how.

Omar and Drea

Omar’s confidence had justifiably grown. After removing Lydia, Rocksroy and Hai, Omar got a little overconfident. He set his sights on Drea. Drea told Omar she’d found the Knowledge Is Power Advantage, and was planning on taking Mike’s Idol with it. Omar knew he had the power to remove Mike, or Drea. But since he was also holding an Idol Nullifier (which wasn’t included in the broadcast) he opted to remove Drea first, then eliminate Mike’s Idol at the next vote when he played it. He told Mike about Drea’s KIP Advantage, and convinced Mike to give his Idol to Omar to foil Drea’s plan.

It was another masterful example of subtle manipulation … until it blew up. Upon being blindsided, Drea announced “Omar, you’re the only one I told this secret to, and I want everyone else to know that.”

Omar’s cover was blown. Everyone knew he’d just pulled off the biggest move of the game. Omar’s subtle move became a Big Move, because suddenly, all eyes were on him. Omar got voted out next.

Now let me be clear, I don’t think Drea’s words killed Omar’s game. Omar was holding Mike’s Idol. He easily could have held on to it after he got thrust into the spotlight. Omar’s partner Lindsay won Immunity, and held an Idol. She could have given one to Omar. But Omar felt comfortable returning Mike’s Idol because he knew he could nullify it when Mike played it. He and Lindsay also felt if she gave him her Idol, it could return to the game, and be found by someone else. Their fear wasn’t unreasonable, but after being thrown into the spotlight like he was, Omar probably should have been more concerned about being targeted. Omar certainly couldn’t predict Drea’s reaction, but he could have adjusted to her word vomiting, and protected himself better.

So there you have it. In my view, subtlety will get you a lot further in Survivor than going for Big Moves if you want to win the million. We’ll soon see which approach the Survivor 43 players take. I’ll definitely identify the subtle players in my column. I’d love to get your thoughts in the comments.

If your goal is to become famous, or get an invitation to play again, I’d say your best bet is to play like Phillip, and make yourself as memorable as possible. There was never anything subtle about Phillip.

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.