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Strategic Overview of Survivor: Better the Devil You Know…by Jeffrey D. Sadow -- 10/17/2003
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It took a while, but, finally, the dominant Drake alliance made their first big mistake, bigger than throwing the previous immunity challenge.
Partially, it was Rupert’s fault. To that point, in this three-day period, he had made all the right moves. His time seconded to Morgan he used wisely. There, he picked up a potential ally down the road by giving Ryan the opportunity to enhance his stature. In addition, he helped them win a reward challenge but at the same time saved great face among his Drake colleagues by refusing to partake of the reward. He kept his mouth sufficiently shut so that he did not give away important information, particularly his shoe-stealing at their expense on the first day. And, right afterwards, he helped maneuver Morgan into raiding a commodity that was much less valuable to Drake than other potential targets, even seeming to be a nice guy about it to Andrew.
Out of all of this, after the merge, his actions may have bought him a crucial vote here or there coming from Morgan. He may well need them, for his mistake, shared by the remaining females in Drake, was to boot out Michelle.
Strategy screamed for Shawn’s removal. When the choice is to keep either somebody who thinks he can fool you into thinking he’s with you and you know that he doesn’t know you know, or somebody who has been exposed as a rival, you keep the latter so that she twists in the wind. It’s in the best interests of the alliance to keep that person thinking she could go at any time. It will make her much more compliant and less likely to sow dissension because she’s out in the open.
On the other hand, someone who thinks he’s successfully hidden his true intentions has incentive to plot behind the scenes and to become bolder in trying to take down the alliance. Plus, by chopping off his game head, you could expose any other “traitors” in your own alliance. Since Shawn stayed, Jon may become emboldened to plot against the alliance now, having two votes rather than one (he could not risk doing so with Michelle because of the risk of getting caught commiserating with a known opponent of the alliance).
There is another good reason to keep Michelle rather than Shawn – a merge will be coming soon and it’s not too early to start getting rid of physically-fit competitors. Rupert will need all the help he can get here because, if anything, he is too physically fit. He genuinely has been on the losing side only once, and that last immunity challenge involved mostly willpower, not physicality. Rupert must not scare his women (Trish, Sandra, Christa) into thinking he is a force that will overwhelm all of them. In fact, they should start planning for this and make a pact now to make themselves the final four.
Surely Rupert and his women suspect Jon is foolish enough to think he has the mind to successfully play off both sides. And maybe Rupert did his best to convince them to evict Shawn. If so, it wasn’t enough and this move may come back to haunt those four as they opted to risk letting a fire burn and potentially build in strength rather than to put out a fire they could contain and control.
Let’s make one assumption, that the merge happens after sending off one more, and then look at scenarios assuming parity or a 6-4 Drake advantage. Under the conditions of parity, this move does not turn out bad, for they vote off Shawn and Jon is forced to cast his lot with Rupert and his women at the merge. At that point, Rupert has two options. First, he could try to entice Ryan and Andrew, having established friendly relations with them, to come over and use them to Pagong out the remainder of Morgan, then Jon. Down to six, he then can make another choice: go with his women and get rid of Ryan and Andrew but risk their turning on him, or to take a chance and stick with the guys, try to get a woman to defect or risk a tie-breaker, and have an even more secure chance at the final three (of course, the males might provide more physical competition on the final, crucial immunity challenge). In any event, this strategy leaves him with a lot of good options.
But a 6-4 game, with two dangerous probable traitors surviving, makes his position much more perilous. Jon and Shawn may decide to jump to the Morgan survivors (probably minus Darrah) and it’s lights out for Rupert and his women. Note how Jon or Shawn can be controlled much more easily separately than together, for defecting to the other tribe becomes a much higher-risk strategy for a lone defector than with a confederate to jump with you. That is because as a solitary jumper the tribe you join will not trust you and use your vote that one time, then turn on you next. That’s much harder to do with a pair who could jump back to their old tribe if threatened by their new tribe (or at least one of them could).
Interestingly, this logic argues that Rupert and his women ought to throw the next immunity challenge (which itself entails some risk) to ensure Shawn’s demise. Yet note how much stronger their position would have been by going into the merge up 6-4 with Michelle as the extra wheel. She would have been extremely unlikely to defect, knowing that her defection to make the sides even would not necessarily ensure her continued survival, and even if it worked, she would probably be voted out by the Morgan group as soon as the numbers allowed it. Better to stay with the devil you know than the devil you don’t.
All in all, voting off Michelle rather than Shawn turned out to be a major mistake. While there’s a common misperception (courtesy of Rob from S4) that the Godfather movies can tell us something about strategy behind Survivor, we can modify the famous Corleone statement to understand this tribal council error: keep a pair of presumed enemies close, but keep a single known enemy closer.
In the end, if you have to choose, it’s better to slice out first a potentially more aggressive cancer that could rapidly multiply than an isolated one you know you can control until you take it out at your convenience. Rupert, who has played at levels approaching the hallowed Rich and Brian (shoe-stealing aside), and his women may have given away their chances to win by their failure to recognize this.
Jeffrey D. Sadow is an associate professor of political science at Louisiana State University in Shreveport where he teaches, among other things, classes in international politics, international organizations, and diplomatic history. He has published in the area of gaming simulations in international politics.
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