Survivor has been my TV guilty pleasure for over a decade now. I've seen every season, every episode, once wrote a regular column about the show for an entertainment website (and, to boot, had to win a Survivor/Apprentice-style competition just to earn the right to write that column), still get really wrapped up in strategy discussions, and basically, yeah, am too into this show.
Ergo, with the 22nd (good lord!) season now in the books, I thought I'd take a crack at ranking all 21 Survivor winners to determine who the real 'greatest Survivor ever' is. Some of my criteria, which I reserve the right to contradict or ignore depending on the winner (ah, hypocrisy!)...
* how this person won their respective season. None of the winners are "flukes," since at the end of the day, a win is a win is a win. But, the degree of difficulty certainly plays a factor, or, in a few cases, dwarfing a degree of difficulty.
* THAT this person won their respective season, since I'm sticking to winners only. Yeah yeah, you can argue that Dan Marino is the best quarterback ever even though he never won a Super Bowl, but football is a team sport. Survivor is an individual sport, and unless you've actually been the sole survivor, it's hard to rank you over people who actually have the title to their name. Caveat: I'll probably end up doing a 'best Survivor players ever, non-winners category' as a follow-up to this post sometime in the near-future, so stay tuned.
* how a winner could win another season, or basically ranking their skillset. Could you see this winner succeed if they played the game again, or HAS this winner succeeded in a return trip to Survivor? This is certainly the most subjective category since *everyone* here has a winning skillset since, y'know, they won with it. It's also very subjective in the sense that since the rules and layout of the game changes with every passing season, the skills that could've won you Survivor in 2001 wouldn't get you anywhere in 2011. But, there are a few core tenets to success in this game that quite a few of these winners share.
So, without further adieu, let's break into the rankings. (May 2012 update: Check this post and this post to see where I put Kim Spradlin and Sophie Clarke, respectively, on the list. I'll update this master list at some point to reflect these two ladies and, frankly, to re-do some of my rankings since I've had second thoughts.)
21. Todd Herzog (China)
If it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, and looks like a duck, it's in all likelihood a duck. If it talks a Survivor expert, dives headlong into the game's strategy and carries himself like a real student of Survivor, he's probably a canny player, right? Well, no. I'll go into a bit of detail on this since Todd is pretty well-regarded among most Survivor fans and the low ranking may come as a surprise to many. But, Todd won his season for two main reasons, both based on the dynamics of your average Survivor jury.
a) Amanda Kimmel is the worst jury performer in Survivor history. This is less a 'jury dynamic' than it is a steadfast rule. Amanda's jury performances have cost her at least one season (China) and arguably two (Fans vs. Favourites) since she is TERRIBLE at answering simple questions and is so worried about coming off as scheming or mean that she ends up taking no accountability and coming off as wishy-washy. Rather than point out how she had to keep Todd from going off the rails on several occasions, she merely garbled her way through the answer session and let Todd stake a claim to being their alliance's strategic head, which he clearly wasn't.
b) Juries don't want to lose to someone they don't respect. This harkens back to Vecepia vs. Neleh (why do I make this sound like a legal case?) in Marquesas, when Neleh lost in large part because the majority of jury members didn't want to admit defeat to the hands of a naive, 21-year-old, puppies-and-rainbows princess. In this case, when the China jury was faced with the option of saying "I lost Survivor to..." either the worst jury performer in the history of the game, a smart-ass waitress who openly admitted she barely cared she was playing the game or a guy who wore his strategic cred on his sleeve from day one, obviously they were going to vote for Todd.
So yeah, while I said that no Survivor winner is a fluke, I will say that Todd was very fortunate to find himself the first beneficiary of Amanda's shittiness at final tribal councils. But, he was also fortunate that China was a very weak-ass cast. It's a fair counter-argument that since the name of the game is ultimately jury management, Todd was simply doing what he needed to do, and fair play to that. Could Todd do well if he played the game again, however? Doubtful. He'd either have one of his errors blow up in his face without an Amanda-esque stable alliance partner there to bail him out, or he'd get voted out very quickly simply by dint of bragging about being a real student of Survivor strategy.
20. Jud "Fabio" Birza (Nicaragua)
The low ranking may be because this season is so fresh in my mind and Fabio's win hasn't has a great chance to quite settle yet. But doing very little to win arguably the worst Survivor season ever pretty much guarantees that he'll be at or near the bottom of this ranking for a long while. He deserves credit for winning a string of immunities near the end of the game when a loss in any of those challenges would've probably meant his doom, but other than that, Jud was a non-entity. His stated plan to fly under the radar and not make waves worked too well, since the other players got irritated by his laissez-faire attitude. Or, in my opinion, Jud didn't know what the hell he was doing and just decided on incompetence as a strategy. Man, did this season suck. I noted that Todd was lucky to win in a weak cast, but there are probably a half-dozen people from the China cast that would've whipped ass over the mediocrities, quitters and non-entities that comprised the Survivor Nicaragua cast. In most other seasons, his physical abilities make him a target and his wishy-washiness definitely gets him offed, since nothing will get you voted out in Survivor like unpredictability. (Uh, unless you're Dreamz.)
19. Jenna Morasca (Amazon)
It almost feels like a cliche to rank Jenna this low, since she is widely considered to be one of, if not the, worst Survivor winners. I feel obligated to point out her two clutch immunity wins upon reaching the final four, and the fact that I suspect if she played the game again*, she would do really, really, well and everyone would have a Parvati-esque about-face about her skill at the game. But I dunno, the overall arc of the Amazon season was Rob Cesternino's attempt to turn the game on its head with each passing week, and in some sense I feel Jenna was fortunate to be one of the last ones left standing once Rob's house of cards collapsed for good. Despite the low ranking, I'd still consider Jenna to be a decent winner -- Todd and Fabio are the only ones I'd consider to be kinda crappy players, so it's all uphill after that.
* = Jenna did return for the original All-Stars season, but had a change of heart about playing since her mom was suffering from cancer and left the game after about a week.
18. Bob Crowley (Gabon)
The fact that a 57-year-old man was able to win three, crucial late-game immunity challenges to stay alive is extremely impressive, and I tip my hat to Bob for that great run. As opposed to other winners, however, Bob was aided by the unusual twist of having someone in the game who wasn't playing to win, but rather to make herself look good on television. Had Sugar not switched her vote at the final four and kept Bob around (which anyone trying to win would've done, since Bob was a lock in the final tribal council), then he's eliminated and is remembered just as the poor man's Yau Man in Survivor history. I will give thanks to Bob for winning Gabon, since he was one of the few players on this season who wasn't an asshole, sociopath or miscreant in some form or another. Bob's only flaw was that he just seems really, really boring. And man, that damn bow tie.
17. Aras Baskauskas (Panama/Exile Island)
Ah, Aras. I hate to rank the winner of the funniest season ever so low on the list, but man, I'm not even sure this guy realizes he won Survivor. Aras was one of those guys that always seems like he just smoked a joint before speaking, which was accentuated by the fact that he was a yoga instructor and generally spoke in vaguely new-agey terms. Exile Island was a thoroughly fun season and a rarity in that it was a year when most of the big, memorable personalities actually made it to the end of the game, largely because they all stuck together in the comedy gold that was the Casaya tribe. They basically delivered a straight-forward 'pagonging' of the other tribe, but because the Casayas were all crazy, you thought they would splinter apart at any moment, but never did.
Anyway, Aras was ostensibly the leader of this alliance and his main purpose was to be the physical threat, or as it turned out, The Guy Who Came In Second To Terry Deitz In Basically Everything. Aras doesn't rank very high on this list because I feel his survival in his season was due in large part to the fact that he was kept around largely because the Casayas needed someone that had a shot at beating Terry in an immunity challenge. Had Cirie (the real brains behind the Casayas) ever decided to directly target Aras, he would've been toast. Though Aras' physical ability and laid-back attitude would theoretically give him a good shot in another season, I dunno, he was a Casaya -- this was a tribe comprised of oddballs who all seemed like they would be voted out first or second in any normal season. Maybe that taint sticks to Aras too, who knows.
16. Ethan Zohn (Africa)
In putting together this list, I had the winners grouped under a few different headings to help sort out their basic games. Ethan was put with JT, Aras and Fabio under the heading of 'amiable dunces.' Basically all four guys got along in the game by not making waves, not being too deep into strategy, being well-liked by everyone else, holding their own in physical challenges but not so much that they came off as super-big threats, and just generally coming across like good dues. Now, Ethan isn't a perfect fit into this category since, unlike the other guys, he didn't come across as a dunce. Also, Ethan was easily the weakest physical player of this quartet since he had a nasty habit of choking in challenges -- odd, since Ethan is a former pro soccer player. But I rank Ethan ahead of two of these guys since Ethan had the advantage of playing an early season of Survivor, so his geniality made him a great fit in the classic 'make an alliance and go to the end' Survivor game. I can't even hold his showing in All-Stars against him since he carried the 'past winner' stigma with him, and maybe should be credit for lasting the longest of the past winners in that season.
In short, I dunno, I think Ethan would be a solid contender in the modern game with the hidden immunity idols and the redemption island and the GLAYVEN. He wouldn't make a boneheaded move like JT, nor would he be so adverse to strategy (like Fabio) that he'd alienate everyone. Since it looks like Survivor will be doing all-star seasons on a semi-regular basis now, I'd love to see a simple concept of taking players from the first 6-7 seasons and putting them into a modern Survivor game with all the new twists. It'd be great to see who could adapt the best and then Sandra would probably win again. That said, Ethan's big weakness is that I'm not sure he'd adjust to something not working out for him. Africa was basically a clockwork season that didn't really test him, and he got ousted in All-Stars when his simple alliance plan turned on him.
15. Vecepia Towery (Marquesas)
Of all the winners on this list who haven't been back for a second go-around on Survivor, I think Vecepia might actually be the one I'd be the most interested in seeing play the game again. This is in large part because I still feel like she's the most anonymous of all the winners, given how little she was featured during her first season. The big story of Marquesas, of course, was that it was the first time an alliance was actually overthrown in the game, and once that huge move went down, the focus shifted to big personalities like Sean and Kathy, and the father/daughter dynamic of Paschal and Neleh. Vecepia still stayed largely in the shadows until the last couple of episodes, when it was like, "Oh yeah, Vee's still here and, holy crap, she might win this thing."
So needless to say, this was your classic under-the-radar Survivor win. Given that it even flew under the radar of the show's editors, I'm almost forced to rank Vecepia relatively low simply because I need to see more of her. Also, what the hell, I'll cite the 'purple rock controversy' as a tiny asterisk on her victory. It wouldn't shock me at all to see Vecepia make another deep run into the game if she did ever play again, a la Sandra....or, wait, since she was doing 'anyone but me' before Sandra did, maybe I should say a la Vecepia.
14. Danni Boatwright (Guatemala)
Danni's game was sort of an amalgam of the previous two entries on this list. She and Aras were both were part of an ever-tenuous alliance, with the difference being that Danni's actually did collapse, and more importantly, collapsed with her as the target. Danni had to win a couple of key immunities to save herself and also count on Rafe's boneheaded "I release you from our promise to not vote against each other" play in the final immunity challenge. Danni is like Vecepia in that I still don't feel like I really got a good sense of her victory, since like Vee, Danni was largely cast aside by the editors in favour of bigger personalities like Stephenie, Rafe, Stephenie, Judd, Bobby Jon, Stephenie, Jamie, Gary and Stephenie. I will give Danni some bonus points for managing to crack the brilliant disguise of Gary "Hawkins" Hogeboom. Truly a deduction worthy of Sherlock Holmes himself.
13. Amber Brkich-Mariano (All-Stars)
You'll notice I've factored the relative quality of Survivor seasons into my rankings, or more specifically, the relative quality of each season's cast. This falls under the aegis of 'degree of difficulty,' since obviously it's more difficult to win if you're competing against a few other sharp minds, rather than just a bunch of relative dullards. Winning an All-Star season is an added layer of difficulty given that everyone is more or less on the same playing field as a returning player; everyone is used to living in the wilderness, being away from home, and they all have a frame of reference and know what mistakes to avoid. (Well, unless you're Russell and you screw up in exactly the same way.)
Taking this all into account, I still can't quite rank Amber's victory all that highly since after seeing her play the game twice, her strategy is clear. Her M.O. is to stick to a more overt, attention-getting player (Jerri in Australia, Rob in All-Stars) and hope that they garner so much bad feeling from the rest of the tribe and the jury will vote Amber for the win as the lesser of two evils. I should note that this is a perfectly valid strategy and Amber certainly isn't the only winner to employ it. Also, playing the "good cop" is an underrated role in an alliance. As we saw on Amazing Race, Amber is great at keeping Rob in check and keeping him from getting too carried away with his machinations -- without Amber, it should be noted, Rob didn't even the jury in either of his other two appearances. (Before this season, of course.)
But, what tends to cloud this strategy is that you can either hit big or miss big. In Australia, Amber missed by attaching herself to Jerri, though admittedly didn't really miss 'big' since she still came in sixth. You also run the risk of playing a bit too under the radar and giving the impression that your alliance partner did all the work, a la Todd and Amanda in China or Becky and Yul in Cook Islands. Amber is batting .500 with her strategy and her win is ever-so-slightly dimmed by the fact that the All-Stars jury was weirdly bitter due to real-life, broken-friendship issues involving Rob, Lex, Tom and Kathy.
After seeing Boston Rob in two of the last three Survivors, is anyone else really hoping that Amber gets back one of these years? I'd be interested to see how she defends her title and if she would alter her strategy or not. Hell, if anything, her marriage to Rob just deepens her strategy --- other players would still be inclined to dismiss her as "Boston Rob's wife" and they'd probably end up eliminated while Amber gets deep into the game once again.
12. Natalie White (Samoa)
And hell, since we're talking about the Amber Strategy, why not move to the most recent Survivor winner to employ it? A couple of major differences between Amber and Natalie -- firstly, Natalie was in a big hole, down 8-4 after the merge and she was key in the big Foa Foa comeback that got them all to the final five. Secondly, Natalie got herself into the final tribal council in a no-lose situation. She was up against a milquetoast player (Mick, who got no votes) and an obnoxious blowhard who just doesn't get juries (Russell "The Game Is Broken" Hantz). Amber, you recall, barely edged out Rob by a 4-3 vote, whereas Natalie easily coasted to victory.
So yeah, go Natalie. The "Christian warrior" stuff was kinda weird, but hey, she made the key play in the game, causing the big split in the Galu tribe that led to Erik's ouster and opened a door for Foa Foas after the merge. I really feel like Natalie's win was undermined by CBS' quest to edit Russell into the "biggest villain/mastermind ever." It was pretty obvious that Natalie, Mick and Jaison were the ones taking Russell to the end, not the other way around, because they all knew they would beat him in a final vote. The three have said as much in post-game interviews. However, since that fact would've interfered with CBS' chosen storyline for the Samoa series, we never saw any confessionals from the trio mentioning this. If Natalie gets just one, on-the-record mention outlining her strategy to beat Russell at the end (as Parvati did in the Heroes vs. Villains season), she gets a lot more credit as the winner of that game.
11. James "JT" Thomas (Tocantins)
Man, what a difference a second appearance can make. While several Survivors have improved their reputation with a second or third (or fourth, Rob) appearances on the show, JT's appearance on the Heroes vs. Villains season went about as well as Another 48 Hours did for the original 48 Hours. If I write this list after the Tocantins season, JT is easily in the top five with a case for being #1. In Tocantins he fought back from being outnumbered at the merge, won a few immunity challenges, shifted a few alliances around while sticking to his one true partnership with Stephen and did all of this while making no enemies, since he beat Stephen by a perfect 7-0 final vote. It was a superlative performance, and you can't take that away from him.
On Heroes vs. Villains, however, things went differently. You could argue that aside from Sandra, the biggest winner from the HvV season was Stephen, since his reputation went up immeasurably among Survivor fans as everyone simultaneously realized how Stephen must've been the total brains of the operation out in Tocantins. On HvV, JT felt he had to play a different strategy this time out, but only succeeded in irritating his tribe with his wishy-washiness and probably long-term shooting himself in the foot with several his votes. And of course, famously, JT made the legendarily stupid move of giving Russell a hidden immunity idol, believing him to be in trouble on the other tribe. It was just an all-around poor showing from Mr. Thomas. If he appears on the show a third time and continues on this downward slide, he'll be eliminated during the flight to the island by accidentally falling out of the plane.
Again, JT did a great job in Tocantins and that's why he's in the top half of the list. But it can't be ignored that of all the winners who have made a return appearance, he performed by far the worst. Even Tina, voted out first in the All-Stars season, came off better since Tina wasn't targeted for any reason other than she was an ex-winner, so she was in a no-win situation.
10. Rob Mariano (Redemption Island)
I had to think long and hard about where to ultimately slot Boston Rob on the list, and just inside the top ten seems about right. You can't deny that Rob is an influential player whenever he plays the game and given the massive target on his back during his victorious season, the fact that he still won was enough to overcome the fact that he was literally a senior playing against freshmen. For as much as Rob talked about how his game evolved over time, he still plays a very old-school Survivor game -- make an alliance, take it to the very end, then try to hang on once you're cannibalizing your own people. If managed properly, this can be extremely successful, and Boston Rob is nothing if not a charismatic, natural leader who now has a win and a runner-up finish in Survivor to his name. If managed improperly, however, it doesn't work, as we saw in Rob's other two appearances where he didn't even reach the jury phase.
So yeah, tenth seems right. I can't help but point out that had Rob seen placed on the opposite tribe on Redemption Island, he likely gets booted just as quickly as Russell did. Maybe he was finally due for some good luck on a reality show. After all, in the last decade, the Red Sox won the World Series twice, the Celtics won an NBA title, the Patriots won three Super Bowls and now Boston Rob has finally won Survivor. If this isn't incentive to put some money on the Bruins to win the Stanley Cup, I don't know what is.
(I've never been a particularly big Boston Rob fan, but darned if I didn't feel good for his finally winning last night. It was hard to not root for him when he broke down in tears after winning the final immunity challenge, locking him into the final vote and basically clinching him the game. Sure, Survivor is just a show, but in Rob's case, it's a show that made him famous and introduced him to the love of his life and the mother of his children. Good for him to finally conquering it....even if it took him four tries. And, if he ever comes back for a fucking fifth appearance, I'll hope he's the first boot.)
9. Yul Kwon (Cook Islands)
Aha, controversy! I'm sure most Survivor fans would have Yul comfortably in the top-five and possibly even at #1. But, while Yul may take the prize of guy you'd like to see your daughter marry, I feel his win was a bit overrated. His tribe's big comeback wasn't quite as dire as some of the other situations in Survivor history given that Yul had the pre-Crisis immunity idol that could be played after votes were revealed, so he basically had a second life in the game. Secondly, his alliance didn't exactly come back against a rock-solid force --- the Parvati/Adam/Candice/Nate quartet had some holes anyway, and that's not even counting the giant gaping hole that was Jonathan Penner that actually did come back to bite them.
So yeah, Yul certainly deserves credit for controlling his season in a methodical, logical way, which almost never happens in a game that's often chaotic. He also deserves some credit for sponging all the credit from Becky, who apparently was his equal in managing his tribe's strategy but was just seen as a hanger-on by the jury. While undoubtedly a very good player, I also have my doubts Yul could make it far in the game again.
8. Tom Westman (Palau)
Consider Tom to be the evolutionary JT. Like JT, Tom didn't do so well in Heroes vs. Villains, but Tom at least went out with his head held high, rather than voted out due to a boneheaded error. Also, as good as JT played in Tocantins, Tom did even better in Palau. I mentioned earlier how about I had the winners slotted into categories to help my keeping their games straight, but I just had Tom as 'outlier.' By all logic, a player like Tom should NEVER get anywhere near the end, but Palau was an odd season due to the legendarily shitty performance of the Ulong tribe. The Ulongs were the team that lost EVERY SINGLE IMMUNITY CHALLENGE until their tribe was literally down to just one person, Stephenie LaGrossa. Thanks to his tribe's unprecedented winning streak, Tom was able to maintain his role as their leader for much longer than usual and cemented deep bonds with such tribemates as Ian and Caryn. The latter bailed Tom out by refusing to join a proposed female alliance after the merge, and the former had a really odd father/son dynamic going. It call it odd since Ian had to have some unresolved daddy issues given that he quit the game in the final three rather than lose the respect of a man he'd known for, like, a month. That was some weird-ass psychodrama.
It can't be held against Tom, however, that all his tribe did was win, so he's one of the rare alpha male Survivor winners. I do wonder how things would've shaken out had he faced Ian in the final two. That might've been a close vote, or it would've devolved into a scene from The Great Santini.
7. Richard Hatch (Borneo)
Well, here he is. When I use the 'how would a player do if they played the game again' criteria, I use it in a vacuum. Obviously, if Richard Hatch played the game again today, I suspect he'd get dusted almost instantly because a) he's Richard Hatch and b) uh, well, actually he can't play the game today since he's currently in prison for tax evasion. On the money he won from winning Survivor. Wow.
So while Richard is no brainiac in real life, he gets eternal credit for being the first person to 'get' the intrinsic point that Survivor is a game show, not the social experiment it claimed to be in its first season. He formed the Tagi alliance that won him that season and set the strategic foundation for every subsequent season. Rich's social game is also quite underrated, as he was able to earn enough respect to win the final vote and keep together such disparate personalities as Sue Hawk, Rudy Boetsch and Kelly Wiglesworth together until the end. (Well, Kelly was on the outs by the end, but Sean's idiotic alphabet voting strategy made him a de facto alliance member.) Rich's place in Survivor history is safe, and even if they do 100 seasons of this show, he'll always be mentioned near the top of any best players list.
6. Chris Daugherty (Vanuatu)
The king of lies! Chris had no business winning the Vanuatu season, being down 6-1 against an all-woman alliance and seemingly without an ally to be found. But then, Chris was spared thanks Twila and Scout making a move against the younger women, and Chris did his part by convincing Eliza to join the revolution. From then on, Chris spun such a web of bullshit that even a bull spider would've been impressed. My pal Mario compared Chris' performance in Vanuatu to that of Bill Paxton's character in True Lies for his sheer commitment to his lies, and while Paxton's lies eventually got him targeted by the federal government, Chris deceived his way to the million bucks. His final jury performance was particularly awesome, as he sniffled, aw-shucksed and apologized to the women he'd backstabbed along the way, and they totally bought this horsecrap hook, line and sinker. Chris is the anti-Amanda when it comes to addressing juries.
Chris is generally considered to be a middling winner by a lot of Survivor fans, but I beg to differ. If I had to bet on any male Survivor winner doing well in another appearance, Chris would be far and away my top pick. The guy just has an innate talent for talking his way out of situations. For instance, in the very first Vanuatu episode, it was Chris' failure on a balance beam challenge that cost his tribe immunity. Chris was clearly the goat and on an all-male tribe, failure to perform was seemingly paramount. Yet when the vote finally came, it was Brook who was eliminated. The fact that Chris was able to escape such a trap from day one made him a player to watch. I'll bet if Chris was on the show again, he'd manage to convince you that there were bigger targets to deal with and you'd believe him up until the moment he voted you out....and then you still might vote him to win the money.
5. Earl Cole (Fiji)
The only knock against Earl is that he isn't Yau Man, who had he won, I might well have put in the top two overall. Interestingly, Earl represents sort of the nice guy version of the Amber/Natalie Strategy -- instead of sticking to a polarizing figure to make yourself look better in comparison, Earl stuck to an even nicer guy who was an even bigger challenge threat than he and who was an even bigger lock in the final vote. Yes, that's right, Yau Man would've somehow won the final vote even more dominantly than Earl did, and Earl won 7-0. I suspect Probst would've also thrown in a vote or something. But because Yau was such an overwhelmingly class act, Earl's own status as a surefire final vote winner was kept under wraps.
Earl also gets points for being probably the biggest comeback win in history, bigger than Chris Daughtery's, bigger than Yul's, bigger than anyone's. He not only managed to make it through the rich tribe/poor tribe division in the early parts of the Fiji season (easily the worst twist in the game's history since, hey guess what, the 'rich' tribe won every challenge since they were well-rested and well-fed) but he also overcome the loss of alliance-mate Michelle after Michelle got ganked by the tribe switch/immediate vote twist, which was also pretty unfair. Earl had to overcome a lot to win Fiji, so I'll overlook the fact that Fiji didn't have a lot of brain surgeons in the cast.
4. Tina Wesson (Australia)
My friend and fellow Survivor obsessive Mario ranks Tina as arguably his favourite player in the game's history, and it's interesting that Tina is remembered so much as the 'nice' winner (no doubt being helped by coming after Richard Hatch) when she was easily willing to cut throats to get further in the game. That's the mark of a true player -- when you can pull off a few bad-ass moves and even afterwards, everyone is like "aw man, that Tina is so nice, let's give her the money!" In fact, you know that strategy I just attributed to Earl of playing tight to an even nicer guy so they become the target? That's the Tina Strategy. She formed a tight bond with Colby Donaldson, perhaps the evolutionary 'amiable dunce' player, and then beat him in the final vote despite the fact that Colby won a ton of immunity challenges and didn't make any enemies. That's straight-up impressive. I don't think Earl beats Yau Man at the end, but Tina beat her Yau Man.
Tina, of course, got voted out first in All-Stars since she was a former winner, and not because she was the biggest threat out there, which would've won the Saboga Tribe a lot more in-game respect had that been their reasoning. If she plays this game again, not only do I think would she go a long way, it wouldn't shock me at all if she repeated as champion. Theoretically the other players would realize she's a huge threat and vote her out as soon as it was convenient, but you can never predict how new players will treat a returning star. (See: Redemption Island.)
3. Brian Heidik (Thailand)
As with Rich Hatch, I'm somewhat bending my criteria of 'how would this player perform in the game again' for Brian because if he ever returned to the show, he would and should be voted out in a heartbeat. So why is he ranked so highly on the list? Because Brian dominated his season to such an extent that, to this day, it's probably still the most impressive single-season performance in Survivor history. Forget about Jeff Probst saying his buddy Boston Rob had 'a perfect game' on Redemption Island --- Brian Heidik had a perfect game years ago.
Thailand, not incorrectly, is regarded as one of the worst Survivor seasons and thus Brian's victory has been somewhat forgotten by history. But, I'd argue that one of the reasons fans look down on Thailand is because Brian himself was a particularly unpopular winner. To that point, he was the most unpopular winner in the show's history. Tina and Ethan were popular, Vecepia was generally popular though somewhat of a question mark and even Richard had a large group of fans that respected his ability to figure the game out. With Brian, though, nobody seemed like the fact that this borderline sociopath breezed through Survivor like it wasn't even a thing.
I say 'borderline sociopath' since that's how Brian approached the game. Watching Brian was like watching Dexter play Survivor -- he made no pretense about liking or befriending any of the other players, coldly dispatched his own alliance members when it suited his purposes and covered up this behaviour with a bland, likable persona as a hard-working family man. In reality, Brian was one of the wealthiest car salesmen in the country and an ex-softcore porn star, married to another ex-softcore porn star. Not quite a serial killer like Dexter, but still, not the kind of chap you'd think would win a jury vote.
This isn't to say Brian was some master actor, since the rival Sook Jai tribe saw through his act pretty clearly and his own alliance-mates saw the light after they'd been voted out at his hand. But yet Brian still won (and picked up all the votes from his former alliance) since he made sure that as unlikable as he was, his final tribal council opponent was the even more-unlikable Clay Jordan. So, as the lesser of two evils, he won the title.
(Brian's success, by the way, is another example of why Russell Hantz sucks at playing Survivor. Brian showed that yes, an asshole can win the game just as long as he makes sure he's there at the end with someone even worse. Russell never figured this out -- his ego and his own warped view of what makes a good Survivor player led him to believe he would easily beat the likes of Natalie, Sandra or Parvati at the end. Russell's strategy in Samoa should've been to get to the end with Shambo and Mick, the former who wasn't respected at all, and the latter who actually did seem to be a coattail-rider and actually got fewer votes than Russell did at the Samoa finale. In Heroes vs. Villains...well, yeah, Russell was pretty much screwed in any possible finale, unless he'd somehow managed to get to the end with Sugar and Randy. In short, Russell is a bad Survivor player.)
All this is to say Brian's success is ultimately unrepeatable for him personally, but if you are cognizant of the fact that you don't have a great social game, his is the perfect strategy to employ. You don't openly talk about how your opponents are idiots and pieces of trash, like Russell. You just keep your head down, keep your thoughts to yourself and hope your mask doesn't slip until it's already too late for your opponents. Brian is the living embodiment of the reality show cliche statement, "I'm not here to make friends." Those who feel that backstabbing and disloyalty aren't sportsmanlike in Survivor should remember Jonathan Penner's famous quote about how they are no villains if you're playing Monopoly.
2. Parvati Shallow (Fans vs. Favourites)
You know how JT made that huge plummet between Tocantins and Heroes vs. Villains? Parvati made the opposite leap. If you had told me after the Cook Islands season that I'd one day consider Parvati (whose whole strategy consisted of 'flirt/align with the best-looking guys') the second-best player in Survivor history, I'd say you were crazy. But, Parvati went from being an also-ran in the Cook Islands to suddenly evolving into perhaps the best social game player in Survivor history by the Fans vs. Favourites season. Sure, the fact that she faced Amanda in a final vote helped her win, but it was Parvati's ability to coerce both men and women that suddenly made her into a star. Then, in Heroes vs. Villains, she compounded her feat by lasting to the final tribal council despite being targeted as a major threat from the outset on her original tribe. It seems almost unfair that Parvati is also quite good at challenges, which has saved her on a few occasions. I'd have to say that Parvati's ability to compete in any Survivor circumstance makes her the best player ever, aside from.....
1. Sandra Diaz-Twine (Pearl Islands, Heroes vs. Villains)
My answer to the "who's the best baseball player ever" question has steadfastly been Babe Ruth for one simple reason: Ruth was not only arguably the greatest hitter in the history of the sport, he was also a very good pitcher. End of argument. The two main facets of baseball are pitching and hitting and Ruth excelled at both. Is this argument necessarily fair, since, y'know, Ty Cobb or Barry Bonds or Hank Aaron or any of the other GOAT candidates didn't get a chance to pitch? Possibly. But, at the end of the day, Ruth did pitch, and did it very well for a few years.
This same logic is what makes Sandra the no-brainer choice as the best Survivor player of all time. She's played the game twice, and she has won it twice. 2-for-2. Period. Since I've made the question of how a player's skillset would transfer over if they played the game again into such a factor in my evaluation, it's fair to note that less than half of these winners have actually gotten the chance to play the game a second time, so it's very possible that Earl, or Danni or Vecepia or whomever also have a second victory in them. But, the fact of the matter is, Sandra did play it twice and she did literally as well as you could possibly do in multiple attempts. Two for freakin' two.
Here is the only, ONLY criticism one could make against Sandra being #1 on the list -- she is useless in challenges. To this I say, who cares? Winning challenges is only one aspect of the game. And, if anything, the fact that she never won a challenge made her two victories all the more impressive. Other than the two occasions she had a hidden immunity idol during HvV, she came to every single tribal council with a target on her, but escaped every time. Hell, she only received three total VOTES against her in two whole seasons, and two of those ended up not counting because of her hidden immunity idol.
It's interesting that Sandra's alleged biggest flaw is her "lippiness," but I'd argue that her flat-out honesty is probably her biggest strength. Because she's NOT honest. Sandra has this reputation of being a tell-it-like-it-is walking curse word that will let you know exactly how she feels about you, but she only saves her invective for confessions. To a competitor's face, she'll tell them whatever they need to hear and they'll buy it because hey, it' Sandra, she's a straight-shooter! Interestingly, Sandra's two seasons have featured arguably the two biggest villains in the history of the show, Jon 'Fairplay' Dalton and Russell Hantz. Whatever steam Sandra needed to blow off in the game, she could just direct it towards them and the rest of the tribe would thank her for it.
So there it is, Sandra's the best. I'm sure some non-Survivor fans are wondering how it took me a few thousand words to come to the far-out conclusion that the only 2-for-2 player in the game's history is the greatest winner, but hey, if you're a non-Survivor fan and you've read this far, you may need a life.