Survivor has outwitted, outplayed, and outlasted an entire side of Vulture’s Reality Rumble bracket to make it to today’s upcoming finals, where it will take on Project Runway. One of the main reasons for the show’s dominance is how over 14 years and 28 seasons, it still has the ability to surprise, thanks to devious players pulling off moves that flip power structures upside-down and completely reset the quest to the million-dollar prize. Here are the ten best game-changing strategic moves in the history of the series. The list has spoken!
10. Swing Away (Season 22, Redemption Island, 2011)
“Boston Rob” Mariano’s fourth Survivor at-bat is one of the most dominant wins in the show’s history, even if it was one of the dullest, his steady disciplined leadership resulting in a predictable game. The season’s one big shock was also Rob’s career-best move, when Matt Elrod returned at the merge from Redemption Island after winning six straight battles to stay alive. Rob had arranged to send him there in week two, and Matt’s constant victories gave him the ultimate comeback narrative, made more uplifting by his strong religious convictions. Was God helping him win? Even if he did have divine support, the devilish Rob proved the stronger force. Matt was finally granted reentry to the game, and after some dabbling with the opposition, he eventually pledged loyalty to “The Robfather”; Rob, however, interpreted this initial waffling as a sign of Matt’s lack of trustworthiness and promptly arranged to send him right back to the solitude of Redemption Island, cutting short a story that was once poised to be recounted in Sunday schools everywhere.
9. The Dead Grandma Lie (Season 7, Pearl Islands, 2003)
There are two games in Survivor: the game on the beach, and the game before the game. “Jonny Fairplay” was the first to recognize that reality, preemptively implementing a now-infamous plan for the inevitable family visit challenge. Fairplay joyously greeted his visiting friend, Dan (unforgettably nicknamed “Thunder D”), and then asked how his grandmother was, only to be told that she had died. Fairplay did a convincing job of being broken up, winning the weasel much needed sympathy points. After the challenge, which the team let him win out of pity, Fairplay rejoiced with Thunder D and revealed that they’d concocted this story beforehand; Jonny’s grandmother was alive and well and “watching Jerry Springer right now.” The lie could only get him so far, as Fairplay was knocked out with one day left in the game, but that was far longer than the trouble-making contestant would have gotten without riding a wave of empathy.
8. “Hold Up, Bro” (Season 26, Caramoan, 2013)
Appearing on two back-to-back seasons of Survivor, Malcolm Freberg is best known for his headband and flowing hair, and his bold use of hidden immunity idols. Malcolm’s multiple idol plays are all worthy of discussion, but the move that made the list came in his second season after he had secretly betrayed his original alliance, and sensed that he was being targeted for his defection. Before the votes were read, Malcolm’s friend Reynold stood up to play his idol and protect himself. But, interjecting, “Hold up, Bro” (a quote immortalized in this haunting Lego theme), Malcolm convinced Reynold that Malcolm himself was the real target in need of immunity. What he didn’t mention is that he already had his own idol in his back pocket, but why waste that when you can convince a buddy to make sure your torch stays lit? (Buffs before snuffs, bro!) A trusting Reynold indeed gave him his idol; Malcolm ended up not being the target, and a different ally paid the price. Still, the move confirmed Malcolm as a gutsy risk-taker, solidifying his legacy as a Survivor all-star.
7. Closing the Deal (Season 15, China, 2007)
Todd Herzog delivered a master-class in how to win Survivor during the final Tribal Council of his season. After slithering and snaking his way through the game with quiet cunning, Todd could have gone the time-honored route of apologizing to wronged losers and soothing their egos. Instead, Todd sat up and owned all his backstabbing actions in front of the jury, perfectly articulating why he voted out certain contestants, silencing bitter jurors (like poker-player Jean-Robert) by telling them the cold, hard truth: that, like him or not, Todd thoroughly outwitted and outplayed every single juror. The Mormon flight attendant’s arguments were so sound that his competitor Amanda Kimmel, considered a frontrunner entering the finals, was left bewildered and incapable of self-defense; she finished in third place behind Courtney Yates, while Todd closed the deal.
6. Rocking the Vote (Season 27, Blood Vs. Water, 2013)
Ties rarely happen on Survivor, due to the extreme consequences of such a vote: In the event of an unbreakable deadlock, the contestants outside of the tie draw rocks, and whoever draws the off-color rock leaves the game. The second rock-draw in all of Survivor happened last season, thanks to an exceptional Tribal Council performance by former Big Brother champ and Survivor newbie Hayden Moss. At Tribal as part of the final six , a vulnerable Hayden convinced Ciera, safe for the moment as the black sheep of her four-player alliance, to realize her low standing, defect, and force a tie between him and Monica. This left Hayden, Monica, and challenge winner Gervase with immunity and put Ciera, his ally Katie Collins and Hayden’s opponent, eventual winner Tyson, in the rock-draw hot seats, with Katie ultimately sent packing. Hayden only survived one more round, but forcing a tie when it only puts everyone else at risk was an insane achievement in a show fourteen years into its run.
5. Robbing the Vote (Season 6, The Amazon, 2003)
What he lacked in Tarzan’s physique, longtime Survivor student Rob Cesternino made up for in his ability to swing from tree to tree — or alliance to alliance, as it were. Rather than committing his game to any one group, Cesternino continuously created new alliances using bottom-tier players to keep staying alive. Case in point: He ousted close friend and ally Alex Bell when he became too much of a threat, and then reteamed with angry ex-allies Jenna and Heidi to get rid of his new ally Christy, the only player they hated more than Rob. It was devious, dangerous, and damn good gameplay, even though it ended with Cesternino’s unlucky third-place finish.
4. The Reichenbach Job (Season 16, Micronesia, 2008)
On Survivor, the only sure way to avoid the vote is to own immunity. Ice cream scooper Erik Reichenbach, a first-time player against a sea of returnees on the show’s inaugural Fans vs. Favorites edition, entered the final five Tribal Council with hard-earned immunity around his neck, but without a strategic clue in his brain. The Black Widow alliance, led by Cirie Fields, exploited that weakness by aggressively guilt-tripping gullible Erik into surrendering his idol to show he could be trusted. Erik crumbled under the might of Cirie’s masterful manipulation and gave the idol away. His selfless act completed, the likable challenge-winner was promptly ousted from the game. (Said Parvati while casting her vote: “You officially go down as the dumbest Survivor ever. In the history of Survivor. Ever.”) Erik’s move is indeed often cited as the show’s biggest blunder, but the lion’s share of the credit belongs to the Black Widows for convincing the kind-hearted Reichenbach to commit Survivor suicide. The moral of the story: Survivor is not for the kind-hearted — or for ice cream scoopers.
3. Fall of the Rotu Four (Season 4, Marquesas, 2002)
One of the biggest things a dominant alliance needs to fear is a power shift, when the alienated “lesser players” realize that if they bond together they can seize control. This uprising move was first exhibited by who would end up being the final five players of Marquesas. Entering the merge seven members strong, the Rotu tribe nevertheless had a hierarchy of its own, with four players committed to an airtight alliance. Led by John Carroll, the “Rotu Four” arrogantly made it clear to their less valued tribemates — outspoken mom Kathy, father figure “Pappy” Paschal, and Neleh “Oh My Heck” Dennis — that they were on the outs and should happily accept fifth, sixth, and seventh place. However, John’s alliance forgot to take into account two straggling players from the other tribe, Sean and Vecepia; Kathy & Co. realized that if they could join with those two, they suddenly had the numbers, five to four. At Tribal, John — absolutely convinced that he was running the show — was cast out, exiting the game in tears. The onetime self-appointed king of the jungle became a weeping warning sign for all future alliances to never mistreat the underdog.
2. Hatching the First Alliance (Season 1, Borneo, 2000)
Simply put, Survivor — and most reality contests — would not exist today if not for original winner Richard Hatch. Outspoken and transparent in more ways than one cares to remember, Hatch was the only player on the first season of Survivor who entered the game with a vision for victory: build an alliance and control the vote. By bringing craggy former SEAL Rudy, trucker Sue, and challenge beast Kelly into his fold, Hatch created an impenetrable voting bloc that saw him through to the very end. It’s impossible to imagine the game now without alliances aplenty, but in 2000, it was a novel strategy that yielded the first-ever Survivor success story, and its DNA has been found in every subsequent season.
1. Parvati Kills the Heroes (Season 20, Heroes vs. Villains, 2010)
It’s only fitting that the highest-level Survivor move went down during the highest-level Survivor season. Heroes vs. Villains, the show’s second all-star edition, featured some of the strongest players from the show’s previous 19 seasons. Among them: third-time competitor and Micronesia champion Parvati Shallow, the most visible target owing to her well-earned reputation as a challenge-dominating, flirt-wielding, quick-thinking threat.
Parvati clinched this list’s top position during the season’s first merged Tribal Council. Her Villains tribe entered evenly matched, five to five, with the Heroes tribe’s numbers, with a tie vote all but certain. In the hours before Tribal, Parvati repeatedly heard her name mentioned as the Heroes’ intended mark, but she sensed it was a trick; they knew she had an idol and were trying to flush it out while eliminating another villain. But what neither they nor Parvati’s own alliancemates knew was that she had two idols after ally Russell gave her his to protect herself. And, in a brilliant gamble, after the votes were cast, she handed them out to her best guesses for the Heroes’ real targets: fellow villains Jerri and Sandra. Indeed, the Heroes had gone all in on Jerri; with her votes now null and void, Tocantins winner and hero J.T. Thomas was sent home, with his four fellow Heroes falling shortly after.
By staying exposed and protecting her friends, Parvati put herself in the mind of the enemy, rescued the Villains from extinction, and wiped out the competition in one jaw-dropping move. She may not have won the season, coming in second to Sandra (but beating out Survivor super-villain Russell), but even five years later her idol play remains the single greatest strategic move Survivor has ever seen.