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Strategic Overview of Survivor: What Were They Thinking?by Jeffrey D. Sadow -- 11/14/2003
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Disclaimer: I am not, repeat, not a country music fan. But my wife is and at odd intervals when she is compelled for various reasons to watch TV she makes me turn on channels featuring country music videos. Viewing these revealed to me the perfect theme song for Burton’s, indeed the whole ex-Morgan tribe’s, decision-making regarding the eviction of Ryan from the latest episode of Survivor, courtesy of Dierks Bentley: “What Was I Thinking.”
True, Burton’s plans had faced some disruption. Before the immunity challenge, he had made all the right moves. He used Rupert’s turnaround gift of a reward as an opportunity to shore up Lillian’s loyalty. He sounded out potential future (if temporary) alliance partners Ryan, Tijuana, Darrah, and Jon. To the latter, he correctly committed to bringing him to the final three with Lillian.
In fact, he probably did not even know of a bonus coming his way. The cameras found Christa and Sandra talking about how they would soon have to eliminate Rupert. If Burton could get Lillian and the ex-Morgans to go in with him, he could easily explain away a “sellout” to the female ex-Drakes by appealing to this shared desire, before putting the hammer down on them in a few days.
Things began to go slightly wrong during the immunity challenge, a mid-season standard where individuals get to show where loyalties potentially lay by their choices of who to put out of the challenge. Oddly, Lillian placed two of the five markers necessary to oust Burton from the challenge. While it may have been a decent tactic to throw off the closeness of their bond, whether it fooled anybody is questionable.
Worse, those were two chances to smack down Rupert, who ended up winning. If Rupert was the main target of hers, why not go after him? Indeed, Burton may have stayed alive longer (it’s hard to tell since others may have gunned for him) and gotten enough answers right to win enough chances (with Lillian’s two) to have closed out Rupert first.
When you have a knife at your fiercest opponent’s throat, you don’t pull it back.
The knife got lifted and Rupert had immunity, the least preferable outcome for Burton. Now he could not buy time if he immediately went after either Christa or Sandra, yet, strategically, it made the most sense to bust the remaining triad. Even if he was intuiting hints that Darrah was getting drawn into Ryan and Tijuana’s orbit, Rupert’s triad remained the more dangerous of the two. Of course, going after, say, Christa, he would earn Rupert’s enmity and Sandra’s distrust, complicating his delicate task of shepherding his dyad through six other contestants, all of whom could unite at any time to depose him if they became suspicious.
Following this route would mean he would have to commence as quickly as possible his courting of Jon and Darrah so after sending off Christa when he next turned his attention to sending off Ryan or Tijuana, his new group of four would beat the three left, plus he could have Jon ready and waiting to turn on Darrah when four were left. From what we saw, he already has made significant progress on that score with Jon. The trap was set, waiting to be sprung.
Instead, Burton went the convenient route. Ryan was expected to go, and off he went with Burton’s help. Inexplicably, he decided to strengthen Rupert further. While Christa and Sandra may be fearful of Rupert’s position (having proven himself good at both the physical and mental aspect of the immunity challenges), because of his food-gathering prowess they probably will be reluctant to see him go unless someone steps in to fill the breach. That savior would be Burton. But, if that’s how they really evaluate the worth of both those guys and otherwise see them as threats, the men become interchangeable and at least one must go.
Which allows me to throw in another old aphorism: “better the devil you know than the one you don’t.” Between Burton and Rupert, they will stick with Rupert. Their presence makes him stronger. Burton needed to break up that pair at his first chance. He failed.
Repeat after me, when you have a knife at your fiercest opponent’s throat…
So, what were all these people thinking? Burton was not alone here. Amazingly, both Tijuana and Darrah voted out Ryan, meaning they’ll forfeit his jury vote for disloyalty if he finds out and didn’t know ahead of time, if they make it to the final two. If they thought this would make them appear not threatening and therefore discourage others from voting them out, they likely overestimate the others’ incompetence.
By taking the easy way out, Burton may have believed that that he could bide his time and hide his new alliance for a longer period. He could command a 5-3 majority to use against Rupert (or his women if Rupert should again win immunity) next time. But he cedes more control of the game to others because the allegiances of Jon, Darrah, and Tijuana could be quite temporary. After dispatching Rupert and his women, what’s to stop the others from turning against the other strong male, Burton? And Jon is quite unreliable; he’s likely to go anytime he could be a swing vote.
The big strategic advantage Burton had was being in a position to slice off parts of two other alliances piece by piece, yet simultaneously maintaining them at a rough parity so neither by itself could get the upper hand, until he had the undisputable majority which would have to stay with him and Lillian until that point in order to save them all from those other alliances. He has now lost that opportunity. There aren’t two opposing alliances he can play off on each other and use as a threat to keep his partners in line. There’s only one now that could become a magnet to pick up defectors from his alliance to send him off.
Burton’s position is not yet untenable, but it’s clearly worse than it would have been had he rallied his forces to send Christa packing. Let’s say he does nail Rupert next time. Now he has become the main threat and the very real possibility exists that the ex-Drakes and Darrah will unite to vote him off. The only possible way to prevent that, short of a string of immunity wins, is to really demonstrate his value as a provider of food, so he will have to go all out to do so.
Another consequence of Burton’s whiff is Jon increases his power. He’s been itching to play arbiter in this game and a singleton in this position works best when there exists few alliances with few sub-alliances in them (having many weak alliances creates competition with a singleton for power because of all the potential combinations producing majorities that don’t need the singleton to create a minimum winning coalition). Burton’s failure to go after Rupert and his women has narrowed the number of viable alliances, strengthening singletons like Jon.
The songwriter protagonist of the music video mentioned above eventually avoids repercussions of his lack of thinking. Chances aren’t good that Burton can do the same, and are increasing that Rupert, Jon, or even others can win it all in a game now more wide open than ever.
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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