Monday means a new Survivor Oz Feature Article is here for all to enjoy! This week, Ozlet Nick Chester, takes the reins as he debates just how good Palau winner, Tom Westman is. Nick discusses how Tom needs to be discuss in the same sentence as Kim Spradlin, why he was a triple threat and how he shouldn’t be judged on his game in Heroes vs. Villains in an article that’s going to leave you questioning how high you should move Tom up in your winners rankings! Don't forget you can leave your thoughts on the article by leaving a comment below!
I have just completed a re-watch of Survivor: Palau and one of the things that stuck out to me the most was just how good Tom is at this game. One of the first Top Tens I ever wrote for Survivor Oz was about the ten biggest game changing players and I included Tom on that list. I was shocked to discover he only came in at number ten on the list of winners in our Ozcars last year. His game and win are completely underrated and he certainly deserves more respect for playing the game the way he did.
Embracing the Target
Tom certainly seemed to have no intention on being a tribe leader and wanted to “hide behind the grey hair”, letting other alpha males paint a target on their backs and eventually be taken down when they were no longer useful and just a threat to win. He seemed to abandon this policy as soon as the tribes were divided, seeing that Koror were the weaker physical tribe and would need his strength to win challenges. However, it seems somewhat inevitable that Tom would sooner or later establish his position as the leader of the tribe. His leadership qualities were evident and his job as a fireman gave him a very good grasp of the importance of working as a united team in pressure situations. He developed a game plan with many risks, but also a lot of benefits if it went correctly. Basically he abandoned the strategy of hiding behind stronger players and put himself front and centre, giving everything he had to win challenges for his tribe. The results are plain and clear – Koror never lost Immunity and decimated Ulong to the point that there was no tribe to Merge with and Stephenie simply was absorbed into Koror. The downside to such a strategy would normally kick in at the individual side of the game, with a player like Tom targeted for his strength. However, Tom won five of the seven Individual Immunity Challenges and in the end was only vulnerable at three Tribal Councils for the entire game, (the ones where Willard, Steph and Gregg were voted off). He shares the record for most Individual Immunity wins in a season with Colby, Terry and Ozzy and he is obviously the only one to win from that group of challenge dominators. This is all the more impressive when you look at his competition, which included two very strong young males in Ian and Gregg. There is certainly a big risk to Tom’s strategy of showing his physical strength, but if you hardly ever lose; and when combined with a strong strategic and social game, as Tom did, it can pay huge dividends in the end. Its clearly a plan that couldn’t work for everyone, but it speaks to Tom’s ability to know and use his own strengths that he saw it as a beneficial strategy.
Tom embraced his physical superiority
A Keen Strategic Mind
I really feel that Tom is viewed as a one dimensional winner – someone who won his way to a million dollars through physicality and challenge victories. This is a travesty. Tom had a clear and focused determination on winning the game and a strategy on how to do it. As outlined above, he took a strategic gamble that had never been tried before, and pulled it off. But when the game came down to just the Koror’s, he played his strategy as close to perfect as possible. He eliminated Coby who was looking to incite rebellion against Tom and then took care of Stephenie (albeit a vote later than he intended due to Janu’s quit). He was then prepared to draw rocks at the final six to take out his biggest competition in Gregg, using Caryn as his buffer, although she was outside his original five person alliance. Faced with a second possible female alliance, he doused flames on this with well chosen words to Katie to get her back onside. From here he was in a pretty much unbeatable position, unless he lost Immunity which he didn’t. Tom’s boot order once the game became individual was pretty much perfect, although it wasn’t exactly how he intended, showing his keen understanding of the need to be flexible and change plans as the situation changes. It’s also all the more impressive given Ian’s meltdown in the last few days which had the potential to destroy the entire game. Dealing with these sorts of variables and still coming out on top is the mark of a true champion.
One move that may detract from my argument is Tom’s decision to flip at the Final Four and vote for Ian instead of Jenn. However, I see this as a very good move; by doing this, Tom makes Ian look incredibly foolish in front of the Jury, thereby reducing his threat in terms of Jury votes. Tom would also have known that a Final Three of himself, Katie and Jenn would have made for a much easier final Immunity win and he can still take Katie to the end and win anyway.
Tom’s ability to not only put a plan in place but also to keep that plan as flexible as possible to suit changing circumstances marks him out as a very good player indeed. He could perhaps be criticised for being up against a weak field, thereby making his win easier. This is a nonsensical argument. Not only did Tom’s efforts play a massive role in keeping Koror safe for a long time, but there were some incredibly clever thinkers on that tribe. Ian, Gregg, Katie and Coby were all clearly good thinkers who understood the game well and Tom had to navigate his way past such players in order to win. In fact I think it isn’t even a stretch to say that Tom was up against much more strategically savvy players than either Kim or Brian Heidik, who are two of the most well regarded winners of all time. Tom’s strategy is very hard to fault, yet he seems to get little credit for it.
Tom played an incredible strategic game.
An Underrated Social Game
When the greatest social games in Survivor history are discussed, often players such as Parvarti, Kim and Denise are mentioned, and rightfully so. I think Tom has been done a huge disservice by being regarded as a one dimensional player whose physical attributes are all that matter. Koror’s success as a tribe and then Tom’s individual success was not a happy accident for him but the result of a lot of hard work and carefully chosen words. Koror is not the only tribe to dominate, or even the only tribe to never lose an Immunity Challenge. The difference is that Tom worked hard to ensure that the tribe saw the benefit of sticking together until the bitter end. Obviously he wasn’t alone in doing this and was helped by some very loyal allies, but people don’t stick with you for no reason. Tom made a core alliance early with Ian and Katie, and added Gregg and Jenn into this at a later stage, but he seemed to stick consistently with this message, even when talking to others outside that group, such as Caryn. He rarely promised more than he could deliver and was honest when he planned to vote people out. As we have seen over many seasons, it is important to know when to lie, but also when to tell the truth and Tom saw that there was little strategic advantage to pretending people were going to make it through a Tribal Council, only to be blindsided and sent to the Jury in a bitter state. Yet he was able to lie convincingly when he needed to, as both Gregg and Caryn discovered. Tom understood that this part of the game was unavoidable but by lying only when necessary, he wasn’t viewed as a snake or someone not to be trusted. Arguably the only time in the game he was in real trouble was at the final seven, when he didn’t win Immunity and the women could have banded together to vote him out. Here he used good social skills and an established relationship with Caryn to ensure this didn’t become a reality.
Tom’s main alliance was with Ian and Katie, and whether by good luck or good design, he was easily the most likeable of the three. Katie clearly annoyed and insulted her fellow tribe mates, and Ian became seen as more and more deceptive as the season went along. Tom put himself in a great position of simply needing to get to the Final Two, knowing no matter who he sat next to, he would win. You don’t win a vote by six-one without a good understanding of the social aspect of Survivor. Unfortunately, in order to give the season some suspense, Tom was edited at times as a “bully”, but apart from a couple of people (mainly Coby and Jenn), this seems to be more a device used by editors to build some doubt in Tom’s eventual easy win. He certainly seemed well liked in his tribe, and not just because he caught fish and won challenges. He seemed to be interested in making genuine relationships with as many people as he could, understanding that challenge wins and clever strategy only gets you so far in the game. You have to well liked and respected to get those Jury votes in the end.
One of Tom’s greatest skills was to give each player what they needed when talking to them. Caryn needed a lot of constant reassurance and Tom was there to provide it. Gregg was very focused on keeping the tribe in general and his alliance in particular tight and committed to sticking together. Tom made sure this happened and there wasn’t any fracturing. His management of Ian in the last few days was particularly impressive. Ian certainly made some mistakes and had some regrets about these. Tom was sure to capitalise on these in any way that would benefit his game. Although it’s extremely unlikely that Ian’s eventual quit of the game was what Tom had in mind, a few well chosen words delivered at the right time surely nudged Ian in that direction, which of course was of immense value to Tom’s game.
Compare Tom’s role in the Koror tribe to that of Skupin’s in Tandang. Neither of these tribes went to Tribal Council until after the game had passed the tribal stage and became individual. While Tom kept a tight control over his group to ensure they all saw the importance of sticking together. Skupin rubbed his tribe mates the wrong way and the first chance they had to turn on each other, they took it. Or compare Koror to Drake. Drake had no early opportunities to go to Tribal Council but instead of finishing off Morgan and then dealing with their own problems, they splintered. Tom’s role in keeping Koror a tight unit despite the fact that they had to wait so long to actually play the game is a testament to his, (and others), social skills, something that aren’t really appreciated.
Tom’s social skills are easily forgotten but they were a major contributor to Koror’s alliance and his eventual win.
The stain of Heroes vs. Villains
It’s pretty common knowledge that Tom has been asked back to play Survivor a couple of times before he finally accepted the offer in Heroes vs. Villains. His reluctance is more than understandable. If he was concerned about his legacy as a Survivor winner would be tarnished if he failed on a second attempt, there was absolutely no reason to return. It is only a very rare type of Survivor winner that could pull it off twice, and a winner who got there with very obvious physical strength and a nice personality was never likely to repeat that achievement. Tom’s downfall in Heroes vs. Villains was unfortunately completely predictable, and would almost certainly be the same for other popular winners who have only played once if they never came back. If you think Brian or Yul would fare any differently from Tom, (or J.T. and Aras for that matter), you are delusional. Tom had no chance and this only speaks to his strengths as a player the first time around. He was so good the first time that no one was interested in helping him repeat the feat on a return. All Star seasons of Survivor should be viewed like All Star sporting events. They are fun to watch, but the results don’t mean much. The game has an impurity about it informed by player’s preconceived perceptions of each other. Given the circumstances, Tom did very well. An alliance was formed quickly without him, based in large part by existing relationships and friendships from previous seasons he wasn’t a part of. With a little help from the Hidden Immunity Idol, Tom stuck around and managed to pull off the blindside of Cirie. Unfortunately the Heroes had little interest in sticking together as a group and there was only so much Tom could do in a situation that was never going to be advantageous towards him. If this has any kind of impact on how Tom’s legacy as a Survivor player is assessed, this is ridiculous. Tom’s game in Palau is almost beyond compare and to drag this down due to how he played in an All Stars game where the odds were stacked against him before starting, is ludicrous.
Tom’s fate in Heroes vs. Villains was almost unavoidable and shouldn’t detract from his game in Palau
One of the best?
Its hard to compare players as each season is different but invariably as fans this is what we do, and its inescapable. Although we all have our own viewpoints, there tends to be at least some kind of consensus about the very top level games. Generally, Kim, Boston Rob, Brian, Parvarti, Todd and Yul are players whose winning seasons are considered the best displays of all time. Rarely do I hear Tom described in this conversation. I find it hard to categorically state any one game of Survivor was “the best”, but when having this discussion, Tom should be considered much more often and with more conviction than he currently is. It’s a travesty that he isn’t already. So if you don’t agree, go back and watch this masterful game of Survivor. His strategy is one of the most unique around and stands him out as a great winner with a lot of evidence to back this up for the statistics freaks out there, as well as lots of examples of smart game play. He truly was a “triple threat” in Survivor: Palau and I hope his game receives the credit it deserves as one of the very best of all time.
Do you agree or disagree with Nick? Is Tom one of the greatest winners ever? Comment below and let us know!