Lies, Damned Lies, Statistics and Survivor. Most superfans of the show have been guilty of finding and using (usually fairly dodgy) statistics to back up our arguments and theories. I know I have. The difficulty of it all is that even after 30 seasons, Survivor still has a relatively small sample size. Given the complexity of human behaviour, running this experiment 30 times just isn’t enough to make too many meaningful claims. But if there is one “statistic” that gets pulled out far too often, is that Sandra has to be the best player ever, given she has played and won the game twice.
Survivor, in many ways is a sport, and as such, we evaluate it in the same ways. Ultimately, the aim of playing Survivor is to win, like any sport and therefore we tend to hold winners in higher esteem than other players. The recent ranking of Survivor players by my Survivor Oz colleagues was something I listened to with great interest, and unsurprisingly, it ended with Sandra coming out on top. Like many fans of the show, the Ozlets cited Sandra’s impressive records to back up the claim as the best ever; she has played twice, and won twice. You can’t get better than that. She barely has a vote cast against her in 2 seasons, and has lost only 4 jury votes of a possible 16.
But Survivor isn’t just a results orientated business, and looking at the end result, without evaluating the path to get there can give the result far more meaning than it deserves. I write this column knowing the hate it is likely to get, but for me, its the biggest bugbear I have with other fans. Sandra isn’t the best player in Survivor history, in fact, far from it. Can I back up my claims? Yes, I think I can. The results don’t exactly lie – she is a great player, but the best? I don’t think so, and its not even close.
The Case for the Defence
Please don’t get me wrong. Sandra is a good player, and no matter what other points I raise, you don’t win this game twice by accident. She had to do some things right, and it would be fair to say that a lot of her better qualities as a player don’t always translate to great TV, so are left unseen and therefore not always acknowledged. I am not somebody who thinks Russell was robbed, and whilst I think there is a strong case that Parvarti should have won Heroes vs. Villains, I certainly acknowledge that Sandra won fair and square. There is no pro-Russell or Parvarti agenda here.
Sandra as a player knew her strengths, and how to get the most out of them, and how to minimise her weaknesses. The “anybody but me” strategy has major flaws, but what it does show is a high level of flexibility and Sandra has a great ability to keep every option on the table. She has the ability to lie with the best of them, and will throw her best friend under the bus, be it Christa or Courtney, if it gets her a day further. She has the great ability to portray herself as unthreatening, and her tendency to mouth off can hide her social strengths. She has a couple of crucial moments with Russell in Heroes vs. Villains, in terms of setting Coach up, and then later convincing Russell to take her to the end, and this is a big strength; her ability to hold her nose and deal with someone she hated is a huge plus that most players don’t have.
Ultimately Sandra plays well because she knows herself – her strengths and weaknesses and knows how to get the most out of them. For many, a great player has to make big, flashy moves, challenge wins and play idols. However, Sandra’s success shows that a strong social game and great awareness of yourself and other players can be a very successful strategy indeed.
Does Simply Winning Make You the Best?
This may seem an odd question, but its at the heart of the issue for me. If winning is the only criteria against which we judge players, then game over, case closed. Sandra has 2 wins and is automatically the best. But to bring this back to a sports analogy, what about poor players who happen to be a winning team? Or a horse in a steeplechase that wins because, on that day, all the others hit a fence?
The problem with results orientated thinking is that it gives no credence to the process that created them. For those that claim Sandra is the best because she has played twice and won twice, you then have to accept that winning is all that matters. You have to accept Fabio is a better player than Rob Cesternino, Bob is better than Cirie. Anyone who is a sports fan can probably think of a great player who never quite won a gold medal or championship, because a number of factors conspired against them. Survivor is no different. Winning is not the only measure of a great player, and in a lot of cases, it’s actually a really poor measure. The argument also holds no water until we have seen all players come back and lose in their second season. Is Sandra better than Kim, Yul, Earl, Tony, Natalie (both of them) or Todd? The answer is we don’t know, but it’s pretty unfair to rank them lower simply through the lack of opportunity to play again.
Of course, actually winning the game is a massive tick in the column for what makes a great player, and I don’t think we will ever get to the point of claiming a non-winner as the best of all time. But it isn’t the only contributor. Wins can come out of a large dollop of good luck, fortunate timing or simply being the least despised of a group of disliked people. Not being a Survivor winner can also come down to the most incredible bad luck (Cirie’s loss in Micronesia stands out as one of the biggest injustices in the history of the show, yet it spawned one of the most popular winners ever in Parvarti). Frequently, the season’s best player isn’t the winner, and the winner can simply be the one who has managed to doge bullets for the longest, quite often unintentionally. Simply equating winner to best player doesn’t hold water. Boston Rob is rightly considered one of the best players of all time, yet he has only a 25% winning record over 4 attempts. So let’s drop the pretence now and actually look at the details of a game, not just the end result.
A Great Way to Start
Whilst I am not overly keen on giving too much credit to players for their ability to win challenges alone, it’s a part of the game and needs to be considered. We wouldn’t have winners like Fabio, Bob or Jenna if it weren’t for challenges. Sandra is probably the winner with the least challenge prowess – she claimed in the Heroes vs. Villains reunion that this was a strategy, but its one that could easily have ended her game before it began. Sandra is incredibly fortunate to have started both her games in winning tribes – her first tribal council in Pearl Islands was on night 12, and Heroes vs. Villains was night 9. This bought her time – her significant physical liabilities never became a factor, and allowed her to integrate into the tribe socially, so by the time she did have to go to tribal council, she wasn’t a threat. Many good social players have perished in the early stages of the game because their tribe has lost a challenge, and their physical weakness has been too significant to ignore. Sandra was not a major factor in the Drake or Villains early dominance, but gained significantly from it by not having her physical liabilities ever being an issue. Had Sandra been on Maraamu, Ulong or Matsing, would she have made it to the merge? It seems unlikely. Her game has sometimes been compared to Vecepia’s, but Vee doesn’t have that physical weakness, and is unlikely to ever be a threat early in the game. Depending on who you listen to, Sandra was a target to go home if Drake lost an early challenge. The Villains is a different story, but you have to think that losing the first 3 challenges would have been tough for her to overcome. Give players like Denise, Vee or Natalie W the same starting position twice that Sandra had, and there’s a pretty good chance they win twice as well. This is really just the start of a run of incredibly good luck for Sandra.
Luck is Key
No winner gets to the end without a good helping of luck, its just that simple. The best players can capitalise on good fortune and minimise the bad. Lots of players simply stumble onto good luck, and I feel Sandra is one of them.
Where is my evidence? Well, let’s start with her position as a winner on Heroes vs. Villains. Had Sandra returned for All Stars, this was a target she would have never overcome. Let’s say you switch her position with Tina – placing Tina on HvV instead of All Stars. Sandra probably goes first in All Stars – and Tina probably has a great shot of winning HvV. Timing is everything, and Sandra’s was great and not of her making. Being one of the most forgotten winners in a season full of egos was so fortunate its unbelievable. Sandra was so forgettable to these people that she could openly claim what a target Parvarti was as a winner, and nobody called her on it. My point is that there are several other winners that, given Sandra’s starting position in Heroes vs. Villains, could also have done really well, and the stigma attached with being a former winner would not have been noticeable. The comment that she is amazing for managing to win twice starts to ring hollow in that light.
Sandra also had the fortunate position of being the last of her alliance left. This may seem like a terrible position to be in, and in a regular “Pagonging” season, it would be. But in her two seasons, the game was so chaotic that being able to play as a non-threatening player with no loyalties, and therefore no promises to break or keep meant no backstabbling and no bitter jurors. It’s the greatest position in the world to be in, and apart from the aforementioned move to throw Courtney under the bus, it was pretty much a position not of her making. Sandra frequently (and sometimes even literally) stumbled into an incredibly fortuitous situations on both seasons. The chances of this happening are so remote, Sandra could probably play another 100 times and it would never happen again.
Speaking of stumbling, the luck Sandra had in not being discovered for throwing out Rupert’s fish after he was voted out is astonishing. This was a foolhardy and meaningless move that should only have landed her in massive trouble. She somehow not only got away with it but piled the blame on Christa. Some would say this was impressive – but throwing the fish in the first place was an absolutely insane thing to do. It speaks to Sandra’s inability to keep her emotions ion check and it was only the most incredible luck that she managed to avoid the blame entirely.
The final 5 vote in Pearl Islands is somewhere Sandra gets a lot of undue credit for bringing the women together. Let’s make no mistake – Sandra benefitted from Burton’s insane idea to not only bring Jon on a reward with him, but then fail to placate Lil just as they were leaving. He left a hurt and confused Lil to scheme with his enemies for 24 hours – and Sandra caught a lucky break. Had Burton taken Lil, or left Jon behind on the beach with her, its unlikely the girls pull this move off, and Sandra’s road to the end becomes so much harder.
Perhaps Sandra’s greatest piece of luck was in the final 3 of Pearl Islands, where Lil won immunity and then made a completely non-self interested move to vote Jon out, and keep Sandra. Its clear from Sandra’s reaction and from the interviews heard over the years that there was no love lost between Sandra and Lil – in other words, Sandra didn’t carefully cultivate a relationship with Sandra that would ensure she made a choice that wasn’t in her best interest, but rather Sandra got a huge stroke of luck that Lil made the wrong game move and effectively gave her a million dollars. If this wasn’t lucky enough, the fact Sandra got a free ride to the end with one of the most unlikeable people on the season made her win at the end very straightforward. Sandra often gets credit for being amazing with the jury – but its easy to forget that she want well liked by most of the Pearl Island jury. Only Rupert and Christa really had her back. Lil was just much more despised, leaving Sandra the easy win. She manages this a second time – although I think you have to give her more credit a second time around as she at least manipulates Russell into going against his own best interest.
Anybody but Me
Sandra’s strategy has been distilled into this very famous catchphrase – basically pointing out that she will vote with anyone and for anyone, as long as she isn’t the target. It’s a very simple way to play the game and has been astoundingly successful for her. There is something to be said for having such a flexible strategy, and to be honest, I think most players think a little along these lines at some stage in the game. Yes, you want to be in control and eliminating liabilities or threats. But sometimes you just want to get through a vote, so if an option besides yourself is offered up, you take it, and worry about the ramifications tomorrow. For the odd vote, and especially in the early game, this is a pretty excusable and potentially even necessary strategy. However, let’s be clear, it’s also hugely risky. The fact it has worked 100% of the time for Sandra defies all logic. If Sandra played another 100 times, it’s unlikely this scenario would work again. To put it simply, the strategy knowingly gives away control in the game, and places your fate so much more in the hands of others. Sandra is great at convincing others to do what she wants, but surely operating with some level of control would have been better. I understand not everyone plays best from a position of power, but to knowingly give away control in the game seems very strange to me. The strategy paints her into a corner. In a season where there is a clear Pagonging, this strategy wouldn’t save her. Many others have tried and failed – yeah, Sandra did it better than most, but using it as a means to every end is generally a recipe for disaster.
Strategic Game (Or Lack Thereof)
Sandra made several potentially game ending mistakes during both games. Credit where it is due – she found ways to get out of these bad situations, but at times it did feel more than a little lucky how this happened. Perhaps her biggest strategic error came at the final 8 in Pearl Islands, when Rupert was voted out. Sandra threw a seemingly pointless vote at Jonny Fairplay. Given the majority going against Rupert, it seemed to have no impact. However, interviews since then make it pretty clear that Rupert, Sandra and Christa were well aware that Jon and Burton were making other plans, and they were relying on Lil to at least force a tie if the boys turned on them. Therefore, every vote counted that night, and Sandra’s throwaway vote may have given the whole game up. So a pretty bad move in hindsight, but one often forgotten due to her eventual win.
Sandra’s attempts to defect to the Heroes tribe at the final 9 also make little sense. Sandra knew the Villains had a majority, and even if she was at the bottom of that, the final 9 was no time to give away all her power. She seemingly wanted to turn against Russell just for the vindictive pleasure of getting rid of him. Had she gone far in the game with the Heroes, her chances of winning or even reaching the end seem remote. This seems pretty similar to a flip like John Fincher’s or Cochrans, yet again it is easily forgotten because of the end result. It is interesting to note how players such as Sash or Albert were punished by jurors for overpromising and then not coming through, yet Sandra went out of her way to make promises to the Heroes, then fail to deliver with seemingly no consequences.
Sandra didn’t spend a lot of time in control of the game, but when she did, she didn’t do too well. Although she has a reputation as a strong social player, the record isn’t quite so shining when she was in charge of who went. Forcing Jon and Shawn into an argument after the outcast challenge was the equivalent of making two convicted criminals dance for her pleasure, and shows really poor forward thinking. Regardless of her decision, she had to work with at least one of them going forward, and leaving Jon feeling so isolated was just a recipe for disaster. Luckily for her, she wasn’t the first or second target once he did eventually turn on their alliance. Its interesting that players like Russell and Jon are criticised for rubbing their competitors noses in their control of the game, yet when Sandra does it, its not even raised. Sandra is strangely given credit for her abrasive personality where she “gets loud too” and spits venom at people she dislikes in an open manner. Yeah, its great TV and it can be seen as setting her up where she is seen as so abrasive she isn’t a threat to win the game. But I certainly don’t think this side of her game is anything but unintentional. Sandra didn’t deliberately start fights in order to create drama and then step away from it, like Vee. Her moments of fighting were seemingly reactive, and served only to blow off steam and were in no way deliberate attempts to make herself seem unlikeable. How are many of Sandra’s explosive outbursts different to those of Kass?
Sandra’s eventual win also has to be placed into some kind of context. This idea of Sandra as some kind of social powerhouse doesn’t really wash, when you consider her final tribal council opposition. Compare this to Yul, having to go up against a well respected Ozzy, of Tina against Colby. In many ways, Sandra was the lesser of 2/3 evils, and people were not really voting for her to win, but against Lil, Russell and Parvarti.
So Where Does She Sit?
Player rankings are so difficult. Apart from obvious things such as varying competition, dealing with different physical environments and twists, each of us value different aspects in players. We all like different style of players, based on our own preferences and experiences. Quite frankly, there isn’t one player who could be considered the best. How I try to work this out is to think about the great players and how they may have dealt with being in difficult situations in the game. Could they still come out on top? Could Sandra have survived Ulong, or Matsing? How would she have dealt with players such as Ozzy who valued physical strength much more than other attributes? Could Sandra have stopped Fabio or Jenna from winning final challenges that would inevitably see them win a jury vote? For me, the problem with Sandra is that she is only able to be successful in a very narrow set of situations, and its is just incredibly good fortune that she happened to strike these twice. That’s why I personally value winners such as Kim, Vee and Denise more highly. Their chances of being successful in a variety of situations are much higher than Sandra’s are. Unfortunately we have not seen these players return and therefore most of us take the easy option of crowning Sandra the “queen”. Hopefully this closer examination of her strategy might change some minds. Unfortunately, statistics, regardless of how dodgy, are hard to overcome.
Do you agree with Nick? Which side of the argument do you fall on? Let us know your thoughts below!
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