Dark Horse Winners – Why they make for a good season of Survivor


The Feature Articles continue today as Oklahoman Ozlet Heather Smith looks into the role that “dark horse” winners play in Survivor history. Heather discusses how these winners shouldn’t be shunned for the way they played the game, the different ways to stay alive when down on numbers and of course makes some references to Guatemala and it’s winner Dannie Boatwright! What do you think of under the radar winners? Do you agree with Heather that they make Survivor interesting? Comment with your thoughts below!

Dark Horse- a little-known person or thing that emerges to prominence, especially in a competition of some sort or a contestant that seems unlikely to succeed

Survivor’s boring, but very practical way to ensure to get far in the game is simple, get together a majority alliance and take out the outsiders. Make sure that this alliance is airtight, no one flipping, no one from the outside worming in and you have a better chance to make it to the finals. A lot of popular winners have won this way; you have Brian, Kim, Todd and various other winners that have found success this way. However, the usually unsung winners didn’t have the luxury of a majority alliance. It could be they were dealt a bad hand with their tribes, they fell victim to a twist, or they just couldn’t eek out the Tribal Immunity Challenges to maintain numbers. It doesn’t take away from their wins, they just had a bigger challenge to overcome than others. Today, I shall explain just what makes these “Dark Horse” winners stand out from those that failed to pick through an alliance.

The first time that a power shift was seen on Survivor was in Survivor: The Australian Outback with Mitchell’s vote out. As portrayed in the show, Jerri thought that she had it good before Colby, Keith and Tina shook things up by voting out Mitchell, instead of going with Jerri’s alliance with Mitchell and Amber to vote out Keith. However, this was really too early in the season to cast Tina as a dark horse that overthrew he numbers. After the Merge, when the game fell in Ogakor’s favour, Kucha fell one by one until Tina, Colby and Keith were left, making it rather predicable that the winner wore Ogakor colours, therefore following the same pattern that Borneo had with Tagi taking out Pagong after the Merge. This term of voting with tribal lines is called “Pagonging” after the first victim of said strategy, and it’s present in many season since the first two seasons. Once Africa came about with another Pagonging, it was seen as unlikely that something would change in the game to prevent this.


Winning Immunity to stay alive in the game isn’t the only way to avoid the target of a vote. 

This brings us to the fourth season of Marquesas. Marquesas is notable in that it really gave us the first winner that never was in a dominate tribe. Vecepia started on a tribe that didn’t win a single challenge until a Tribe Switch. She also started a well know strategy popularised by Sandra in that she only worried about herself getting to the end and it didn’t matter who got in her way, like when she backstabbed Kathy. She was looking for a way to the end, and it worked. However, she was also involved in the first power shift that really impacted the post-merge game, the John vote out that followed the first ever three-strikes challenge that has since been seen in later seasons. This was something that had people talking back then because it really shattered the rule that the head alliance would get overthrown by the outcasts. This paved the way for an unlikely, unpredictable and still to this day, unappreciated winner in Vecepia. Marquesas was really the first time major power shifts happened in the end game. Amazon and Pearl Islands helped show everyone just how easily the game could switch up, as both Rob Cesternino and Jonny Fairplay took the outsiders and moved them up to the top. Even though they didn’t win, they showed that “major” alliances should never feel comfortable, especially if they’re alienating more people than not.

One thing that really saves many contestants is the last minute, game saving Immunity win, the only thing that guarantees that you stay another three days in the game. For many, it did save them from going home. There is also nothing quite as chaotic as the main target winning Immunity the night they are supposed to go home. While no great player should out right rely on Immunity wins, (a great example would be with Terry, who was voted out the moment he was venerable without the Hidden Idol or Immunity), it is a tool in order to help wedge the dominate alliance further apart. Immunity not only keeps contestants safe for a round, it gives them time. The more wins, the more time to work on a social game. It’s not enough to just rely on Immunity wins, a social game needs to be built because that gets Jury votes. Arrogance kills a winning game faster than anything in Survivor, so one should never let it get to their heads. Fabio is a great example of using Immunity wins to get farther and Danni is another example in winning just as she was up next to leave the game. The fact is that the other players do not take some of these players as a threat and when they start winning challenges it’s far too late to correct their huge mistake and now they are in danger of leaving.


A good social game is key when trying to reverse the numbers in Survivor. 

Without winners such as Vecepia, Sandra, Chris, Danni, Fabio and Denise we would always expect that a winner must come from an alliance that has started since day one. Survivor is a incredibly complex game filled to the brim with factors, even without considering the twists and without factoring immunity wins. The players that found a way to outsmart the system and make the show more fun to watch. It’s those that you least expect to win that make re-watching that season fun and usually those seasons have a high re-watch value. A season such as Vanuatu became amazing because of Chris beating out those six women, or when Danni was cornered without her alliance in Guatemala and when Sandra just let everything around her fall apart when she kept a cool head about it. Those that were behind in numbers during the game give the season a solid story. It also avoids the usual “Pagonging” and shakes up a great game of Survivor. It’s those dark horses that give their seasons a better name for themselves.


Do you Agree or Disagree with Heather? Comment to let us know your thoughts!

About Survivor Oz (2110 Articles)
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2 Comments on Dark Horse Winners – Why they make for a good season of Survivor

  1. Steven Pickett // September 25, 2013 at 2:58 am // Reply

    Heather, so you are a fellow okie? We need to get in touch!

  2. you forgot to mention natalie white from my fave foa foa four of Samoa! or yul kwon of Cook Islands maybe.

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