The Most Surprising Survivor Moves That Actually Worked, Ranked

By Kimmy FitchLast Updated May 8, 2020 7:59:13 PM ET
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Survivor is a reality TV show that is all about strategy. Contestants must combine mental, social and physical skills to win a million dollars. It's not just about playing the game, but also playing the players.

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There is no universal strategy that guarantees a win; what works in one season will not always work in the next. The moves needed to win can sometimes be quite surprising, which keeps both players and viewers on their toes.

30. Eyes Off Sandra— Pearl Islands, 2003 and Heroes vs. Villains, 2010

Diverting attention away from yourself is an unusual move for a Survivor contestant, but it did lead to a two-time winner. Sandra Diaz-Twine's motto was "Anyone, as long as it ain't me," and she followed it to victory.

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Despite the fact that Sandra's physical game was mediocre at best, because she was never a target of the other contestants, she was successful in the end. What seems like not doing much of anything can really be doing a whole lot.

29. Denise the Bonding Queen — Philippines, 2012

In a reality show called Survivor, the act of bonding with other players often isn’t an asset. Nevertheless, that was Denise Stapley’s road to victory in the Philippines season. Her ability to build trust with others was uncanny.

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Stapley even made her strategy known by voicing concerns about the questionable integrity of fellow player Abi-Maria Gomes, earning respect from her peers. It's a lesson to take to heart, not just in the show, but in life too. Real trust in relationships goes a long way.

28. Natalie's "Accidental" Vote Against Alec — San Juan Del Sur, 2014

In Season 29, Survivor: San Juan del Sur, Natalie Anderson decided that she had to go against her five-person alliance and vote against Alec instead of Keith, but she knew that betraying her team would create problems down the road.

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Still, she realized Keith Nale was a bigger asset to her than Alec Merling, so she had to find a way to vote out Alec without losing her alliance. Natalie strategically did this by making it seem like her vote against Alec was a mistake, and she was convincing enough to get away with it.

27. The Coconut Bandits Bring in Monica — Blood vs. Water, 2013

In Survivor: Blood Vs. Water, contestants had to compete against their own loved ones. Gervase Peterson and Tyson Apostol, the so-called Coconut Bandits, formed an alliance with Monica Culpepper after each of their respective loved ones was voted off the show.

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This gave them a unique emotional bond and trust in each other that helped them maintain control of the game until the end. In fact, it was one of the original Coconut Bandits, Tyson, who ended up winning the million dollars that season.

26. Tina Leaves Emotion Out of It — The Australian Outback, 2001

Sometimes, it pays to be nice on the outside but a bit cutthroat on the inside. That's how Tina Wesson won Season Two of Survivor: Australian Outback. Her moves were calculated and goal-oriented even as she maintained her friendly exterior.

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Tina always voted out the people from the opposing tribe who were the biggest threats to her, and she didn’t let emotion get in the way. By contrast, that was where Colby Donaldson made a mistake. He ended up voting out alliance member Keith Famie instead of Tina simply because he never liked him. Had he voted out Tina instead, he would have won the season.

25. The Aitu Four — Cook Islands, 2006

Survivor: Cook Islands switched things up by allowing players to switch tribes. The Aitukai tribe took a hit when two of its members did just that. Afterward, only the Aitu Four — Oscar "Ozzy" Lusth, Yul Kwon, Sundra Oakley and Becky Lee — were left, putting them at a numerical disadvantage.

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However, that may have been to their advantage, as they were able to outplay the other team while being underestimated and win the rest of the immunity challenges. Their strategic dominance led to the Aitu Four contestants being the final four to compete against each other that season.

24. Tony the Entertainer — Cagayan, 2014

Recklessness is not usually a beneficial trait, but it sure worked out for Tony "Tasmanian Devil" Vlachos in Survivor: Cagayan. Luckily for Tony, his wild moves were outweighed by how entertaining he was, which made him likable by some of the strongest players that season, namely Kass McQuillen and Trish Hegarty. They helped him successfully navigate his way out of bad decisions.

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In the end, it was Woo's decision to choose Tony over Kass, which he said just "felt right," that led to Tony taking that season's prize. Tony's entertainment value was just too much to resist.

23. The Public Defender — David vs. Goliath, 2018

The fact that Survivor has a jury puts a public defender like Nick Wilson in a good position walking into the show. He already knew how to hold his own in front of a real jury in a courtroom and used that to his advantage. Nick's public-defender side also knew that throughout the game, he had to be secretive.

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What put Nick on top in the end was his ability to communicate to the jury. Words can be powerful, even in a game like Survivor, and Nick expertly explained his strategy to a jury that ate it right up.

22. The Power of Prayer — South Pacific, 2011

Sometimes, a little faith goes a long way. In the opening episode of Survivor: South Pacific, an immediate alliance formed between returning contestant Benjamin "Coach" Wade and newcomers Brandon Hantz, Sophie Clarke, Albert Destrade and Rick Nelson. The majority of this group was Christian, and their commitment to faith and prayer led to a rock-solid bond.

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Coach played up Christian practices to make sure the alliance remained strong throughout the season. All five of them ended up in the final stages of the game that season thanks to the trust created through their shared faith.

21. Nonthreatening Yourself to Victory — Koah Rong 2016

Michele Fitzgerald took the Survivor: Koah Rong prize in 2016, but many people think Aubry Bracco should have won instead. On paper, Aubry worked the hardest to get to the end and played the best game. But was she really better than Michele?

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Other contestants seemed to want to keep Michele around since they assumed she posed no threat to them, and Michele used that to her advantage. Because she’d only been in one prior season, she also had neither strong bonds or clashes with anyone else this season. She may not have been a fan favorite, but then again, that made it all the easier to slink toward victory.

20. Fall of the Rotu Four — Marquesas, 2002

The air-tight alliance of the Rotu Four led by John Carroll during Survivor: Marquesas seemed like an unstoppable force, but their arrogance — and failure to hide it —proved to be their downfall.

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For the first time in Survivor history, an alliance was taken down by formerly unaligned alliance outsiders. Paschal English and Neleh Dennis defected to the so-called Outsiders Alliance, and eventually, the entire Rotu Four was out. Sometimes the best moves depend less on what you do and more on what the other guy does.

19. Abi Over and Out — Cambodia, 2015

Abi-Maria Gomes lasted a long time in Survivor: Cambodia, especially considering that she was often among people's first or second choices for ousting. However, at a certain point, it became obvious to other contestants, namely Tasha Fox, Spencer Bledsoe, Kimmi Kappenberg and Jeremy Collins, that giving her the boot would really work to their advantage and make their path to victory easier.

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While Kimmi was voted out for going against her alliance, the remaining three contestants outlasted the rest of the players that season thanks to the smart move of getting rid of Abi. Ultimately, it was seeing how untrustworthy Abi was that helped them make that very good call. Sometimes knowing who to get rid of is just as important as who you choose to work with.

18. Sisterhood — One World, 2012

All-women alliances on Survivor have rarely been successful, but when they are, they knock it out of the park. One such alliance occurred during Survivor: One World with a powerful five-woman crew: Alicia Rosa, Chelsea Meissner, Sabrina Thompson, Kim Spraldin-Wolfe and Christina Cha.

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Throughout the season, these women controlled the game, ultimately leading to Kim winning as Sole Survivor. For anyone out there who says women are catty and can't work together successfully, they should really check out how these women dominated One World's pack.

17. Ties That Bond — Africa, 2001

In all its seasons, Survivor hasn't seen a bond as strong as the one Ethan Zohn, Lex van de Berghe and Tom Buchanan made in season three, Africa. A case must be made then for the power of true relationship-building in this often cutthroat game. During the show's initial tribe swap, Ethan purposefully lost a challenge in an unprecedented move to save Tom and Lex.

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That heart-warming deed helped all three of them make it to the end of that season, and Tom and Lex didn't forget it. They ended up voting for Ethan in an act of true brotherhood.

16. Too Good to Be True — Philippines, 2012

The three main skills needed to be named Survivor's Sole Survivor are strategic ability, social skills and physical dominance. When a castaway contender on the show has all three, they are a force to be reckoned with. That's exactly what Malcolm Freberg was throughout Survivor: Phillippines.

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Malcolm Freberg made it to the final four with Denise Stapley, Michael Skupin and Lisa Whelchel because he was not only talented, but also pleasant to be around. However, he didn't make it to the final three because the others all recognized just how much of a threat he was. Knowing when to hide your skills and knowing when to target someone else for theirs are invaluable skills.

15. Lesson Learned — Caramoan, 2013

Malcolm realized that playing the nice guy didn't work so well during his first try on Survivor, so he changed things up when he returned for the following season, Survivor: Caramoan. The time came when he felt his fellow competitors were about to oust him again, so he convinced his ally, Reynold Toepfer, to use an idol for him.

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This was a sneaky play, as Malcolm himself had an idol to use, but his strategy was to save it for later. It was this move that proved Malcolm to be a much better strategy player than he once seemed. While he still lost in the end, it wasn’t for lack of cunning.

14. Tony the Player — Winners at War, 2020

Most Survivor fans thought Tony wouldn't make it far in Winners at War after proving himself to be a true threat in earlier seasons. Instead, he adapted to his new status and learned to play the teams against each other, an intelligent — if dangerous — tactic.

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Tony successfully eliminated Sophie, who was a big threat to his alliance with Sarah. The move also brought about his new alliance with Michele, Jeremy and Nick. Tony’s ability to scheme is an asset, but the more important advantage is his flexibility.

13. Forced Tie — Blood vs. Water, 2013

A tie is a rare thing to witness on Survivor, mostly because it puts everyone uninvolved at risk. A tie means that all players outside of the tie must pick a stone, and the one who picks the off-colored one must go. Despite the riskiness of the situation, it does happen occasionally.

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In Survivor: Blood vs. Water, vulnerable Hayden Moss convinced Ciera Eastin to force a tie between him and Monica, even though it would put her at risk. His social and strategic skills really shined in that scene, especially considering the huge risk factor it created for so many.

12. Parvati Power — Heroes vs. Villains, 2010

Parvati Shallow is a Survivor legend, so it was no surprise to see her in the second returning player season, Heroes vs. Villains. Of course, all of her great qualities made her a clear target, yet she used that to make one of the most epic plays the series has seen.

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Parvarti had two idols, though her enemies only knew about one. They tried to trick her into thinking they were scheming against her, but she didn't fall for it. Instead, she gave away her two idols to teammates Jerri and Sandra, a move that swiftly wiped out the entire other team.

11. The Double Tap — Redemption Island, 2011

Robert "Boston Rob" Mariano finally managed to win Sole Survivor after his fourth try, and in that season, he committed a truly memorable act of deception. Rob sent Matt to Redemption Island in Week Two of the Redemption Island season, but Matt managed to fight his way back as a contender.

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Despite Rob arranging his previous fall, Matt Elrod decided to align himself with Rob again. Much to his dismay, however, Rob never trusted him. He was too wishy-washy in making decisions, so Rob once again sent Matt right back to Redemption Island, a stellar play on his part.

10. Vote Thieving — The Amazon, 2003

Rob Cesternino's excellent strategy of malleable alliances proved that deviousness can really get you somewhere on Survivor. His rotating alliances always included low-ranked players who helped him stay in the game despite all the enemies he created.

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Anyone who became a threat was a target for Rob, whether they were a close friend or not. He voted his buddy Alex off before teaming up with ex-allies to remove his new ally, Christy, who they all disliked more than him. These were bold and risky moves that got Rob into the final three.

9. Cydney Takes Destiny Into Her Own Hands — Kaoh Rong, 2016

Cydney Gillon didn't seem to be a strong contender at first during Survivor: Kaoh Rong. However, she made up for it with a truly devious mind. Cydney's move to take out Nick despite telling her allies Kyle and Scot otherwise proved her cleverness that season.

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While Cydney was in a safe spot at the time, she knew she would never have a chance to actually win without taking such a bold move. That's why she convinced the other women plus Joe to vote Nick out, too, leaving Kyle and Scot in the dust.

8. Spencer Blindsides Fishbach — Cambodia, 2015

Stephen Fishbach seemed like he was in it for the long haul in Survivor: Cambodia until Spencer proved to be his undoing. Stephen and Spencer were allies, so when Spencer flipped and voted against him, he was suddenly out.

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Removing Fishbach as a contender left Spencer in the clear for the next several rounds of the game. He ended up finishing as a co-runner-up, which probably would not have been the case had Fishbach been able to continue. Sometimes, when you're playing for a million dollars, the right move is to turn on your ally.

7. Todd Reveals All in a Final Power Move — China, 2007

The final Tribal Council of Survivor: China presented Todd Herzog with a unique opportunity. His strategic options included taking the honorable path of apologizing to those who lost along the way because of his backstabbing tendencies or to stand by his carefully crafted actions, come what may.

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Todd chose the latter option, being perfectly clear for why his seemingly shady decisions were the right ones, presenting himself as simply outwitting and outplaying his opponent rather than wronging them. This turned out to be a winning choice, and he took the title that season.

6. Kindness Does Not Always Lead to Survival — Micronesia, 2008

Erik Reichenbach got severely outwitted despite having a clear path forward with his immunity idol during the final five Tribal Council. In his defense, he was a newbie up against a crew of Survivor veterans during Micronesia: Fans vs. Favorites. The veteran Black Widow alliance was led by Cirie Fields.

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They persuaded unsuspecting Erik to surrender his idol to prove his loyalty, and the next thing he knew, he was voted out. Parvati called him the "dumbest Survivor ever," though that was maybe a little harsh. If he'd only known that being kind-hearted is not a Survivor virtue.

5.The Birth of the First Alliance — Borneo, 2000

The first winner of Survivor, Richard Hatch, paved the way for a series that has now gone on for 40 seasons. He may have been outspoken, but he seemed to be the only one with a real plan to win. The rest were just making it up as they went along.

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Hatch's strategy was to build alliances to get control of the vote. The alliance-based voting bloc he created provided the road to his victory, and ever since, building alliances has been one of the key methods of making it to the final round in every season thereafter.

4. The Advantage of Lying About a Dead Grandma — Pearl Islands, 2003

John P. Dalton, better known as "Jonny Fairplay," would have been voted out long before the final day of the season had he not come up with a brilliant strategy regarding his dead grandmother. Survivor infamously brings family members to the set for a challenge each season, and knowing that, Fairplay made his move pre-season.

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His friend Dan came to visit for the family challenge only to break the horrible news that his grandmother had died. For that, he garnered a sympathy win, but shortly thereafter, it was revealed that his grandmother was alive and well. Their sympathy was all part of the plan, and it worked — for a time.

3. Ozzy Lusth Goes For Broke — South Pacific, 2011

Ozzy Lusth was so confident during Survivor: Micronesia that he willingly gave up his idol and convinced his tribe to vote him off. He knew that once he got to Redemption Island on the South Pacific season, he'd be able to earn his way back to the game. And he was right.

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That was one of the boldest and most surprising moves the series has ever seen. No one goes for broke and tries to get ousted, but Ozzy did it and succeeded in his plan. Had he been able to move on to the final round, he definitely would have won it all.

2. Yul's Genius Idol Use — Cook Islands, 2006

During Survivor: Cook Islands, Yul Kwon went from being very unlikely to win to being very likely to win with a brilliantly strategic use of his idol. He used it to persuade Jonathan Penner to change sides, gaining Yul a five-person alliance with a fallback four-person alliance and trusted single ally — Becky Lee — to boot.

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That move changed the game for Yul, as without it, he probably would not have ended up as the Sole Survivor and winner of the million-dollar prize. He played the numbers game on top of his social game, and he won big.

1. Ian and Tom Outwit a Double-Crosser — Palau, 2005

Survivor: Palau included what many consider to be the ultimate strategic move of the entire series, which was pulled off by Ian Anthony Rosenberger and Tom Westman. The powerful duo caught wind that their ally, Gregg Carey, was about to double-cross them, so they had to make a serious decision: move forward with a very risky strategy or do nothing and hope for the best.

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Since Survivor does not reward the latter, Ian and Tom did the math and took the risk. That correct calculation worked out splendidly for them, and Tom ended up winning the season.