The Baker's Dozen
By Andy Baker | Published February 7, 2016
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DWSC 2015, Part I

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I think it’s safe to say that from the very beginning, Survivor has loved its numbers. You can hear it in your head, can’t you? “Thirty-nine days… sixteen people… ONE Survivor.”

 

This summer’s Durham Warriors Survival Challenge – the third installment of the four-day Survivor-based event that takes place on Survivor: Gabon winner Bob Crowley’s land in Maine – also has its fair share of numbers:

 

Sixty-five applicants from twenty-four states. Twenty-four competitors. Eighteen newbies. Six Survivor alums. Four hidden immunity idols. A compelling Final 3. And, of course, one Sole Survivor.

 

Back to the CBS show for a moment: Jeff Probst likes to point out that the game has no rules other than the ones the players make themselves. Which is mostly true. There are many promises inherent in the design of the game, however, promises that feel a lot like rules, and none of them is more intrinsic than the truth that, despite a number of facets of the game emphasizing group dynamics, only one person can win.

 

I wonder, though – after playing in the DWSC last year and being a member of the production team this time around – if Probst, Burnett, SEG, CBS, and Survivor have misunderstood the game from the very beginning.

 

Could it be that even the most fundamental assumptions about the game are wrong?

 

*****

 

Please know going into this that I’m not going to attempt to recreate the event in this column; the DWSC videos and photo essay will take care of that. Speaking of which, here are a couple of links for you:

 

 

As much as I love the challenges that we do at the DWSC – and they’re legitimately great, thanks to the exhausting work of those who build them and the exhaustive deliberations of those who plan them – to me, Survivor, and the DWSC, are about the people who play the game. (Like Rob Cesternino, I’d be happy to flip a coin to decide who wins immunity; for strategists like me, the game is won and lost back at camp.) So I’m going to tell my highly informed (because of the brilliant volunteers who kept feeding me information throughout the event) yet endlessly subjective (because of my own predilections and priorities) version of the narrative through the prism of the players. What follows, then, is the cast and characters of DWSC 2015 – in boot order – with the story of the season unfolding with each successive snuff of a torch.

Before all that begins, though, there are some facets of Thursday and Friday that help set the stage…

 

*****

 

The game began with a sequence of events that were meant to defy expectation and preparation:

 

barges** Players started out on two barges, pushing and paddling for two hours to reach Crowley territory. They weren’t yet split into tribes, a fact many of them sussed out quickly; bonds and, more importantly, impressions and assumptions were made, however, just as we hoped and expected. On a related note, production anticipated that players would know that these weren’t tribes; we wanted the members of our cast to be conflicted: Do I say something in an effort to be seen as smart? Or do I keep my mouth shut and avoid the possibility of being perceived as a strategic threat? We also wanted the players to become complacent: When people think they’ve figured out the twist, that’s when they won’t see the real twist coming.

 

stump corral** After all 18 players hiked to stump corral, they were left alone (but contained – no wandering off into the woods)… for about an hour. We knew that many of the players would have done their homework and researched what happened in Seasons 1 & 2, so we decided to use that knowledge against them: Once the players were left alone as a group, many of them assumed that this was a One World-style reprise of the DWSC Season 2 opening. When volunteers starting showing up and preparing for the next stage of the game, you could see the players trying to quickly figure out what was about to happen…

 

** … and again, many made the wrong assumption: According to confessionals conducted at the end of the night, when players were blindfolded and taken into the woods, some of them thought we were returning to DWSC Season 1, when everyone had to do a solo night in the middle of the woods without fire or food. That’s NOT what we were doing, but it IS what we wanted them to be worried about. Because worried players are, under the best of circumstances, highly calculating, and, under the worst, prone to panic under pressure.

 

** What the players ended up doing was forming their own tribes of six as they made their way towards a bonfire at the heart of the darkening woods. And that’s where the multiple stages of the opening converged in carefully crafted chaos. We wanted their heads spinning with the possibilities: Would they seek out people from their original rafts? Look for the men and women they had connected with on the hike and in stump corral? Simply grab the people nearest to them and hope for the best? In the end, we wanted to get them thinking – and rethinking – their opinions, their choices, and their places in the game. Given what we saw play out that night, I think we accomplished all that… but only the players know for sure.

 

*****

 

And that’s how Thursday night ended: With three tribes of six together in stump corral, one of them in possession of a tent (oh, to have had it rain that evening, to see who would seek shelter and who would play the social game and brave the elements; sadly, Mother Nature was far too kind)…

 

Survivor tribe… and they were joined by a fourth tribe on Friday morning, one comprised of six Survivor alums who had spent the night huddled around a campfire of their own: Joel Klug (Borneo), Jamie Newton (Guatemala), Brooke Struck (Guatemala), Dr. Jill Behm (Nicaragua), Troyzan Robertson (One World), and Nina Poersch (Worlds Apart). With a combination of brains, brawn, and beauty, this “Favorites Tribe” – unsurprisingly, perhaps – dominated Friday’s challenges. Fortunately for the other tribes, they weren’t competing for immunity but bragging rights and camp rewards: flint, pots, and food supplies.

 

The last thing you need to know: There was a tribe swap – the first in DWSC’s history – at the end of Friday. How it played out – which is a tale of strategy, conspiracy, and enmity – ended up having a massive impact on the rest of the game. But more on that as the story unfolds.

 

So we headed into Saturday – a day of Tribals and tribulations – with 24 players on three new tribes, and by the time the day was done, we were down to 11.

 

It all got underway with our first boot, a SuperFan from California who had the massive misfortune of ending up with a hidden immunity idol…

 

… only it was fake.

 

*****
Kristin

24th Place: Kristin

 

Traction. To have it, you need friction and connection and grip. Without it, you’re just spinning your wheels.

In Survivor, traction is at the heart of avoiding the early axe. You have to form instant relationships, integrate into an alliance, connect with anyone and everyone. Get enough traction, and you can maneuver to the merge; get too little, and you’re the one who can’t make the turn when the rest of the pack pivots.

 

It was clear during Thursday night confessionals that Kristin had not gained much traction on Day 1: At the heart of it was the fact that her tone had rubbed a few players the wrong way. Things didn’t get better on Friday; she had expressed her frustrations with her tribe, and when they talked about their long-range plans, her name was conspicuously absent.

 

As always, there was a more complex story involved: Jeff, one of Kristin’s tribemates, had found a hidden immunity idol in their bag of rice, and, thanks to Jeff wearing shorts without pockets, it ended up in Kristin’s possession. (Note to prospective players: Have pockets.) What she didn’t know was that the idol had been smuggled into the game by another Waya player. It was fake, but to her, it was real, and, because idols have power but can turn players into targets, she didn’t really want to have it, but didn’t want to give it away, either.

 

And so I wonder: Did having the idol keep Kristin from establishing the emotional and strategic traction she needed to stay in the game? Did she not fully connect with the people around her because she was guarding a secret? Did her game end because of an idol that shouldn’t have been there?

 

Or had she lost the game before that, back on the barge, back at the beginning, when impatience might have alienated potential allies? It’s the butterfly effect in action: The smallest moments at the start have major repercussions as the end approaches. We all know what they say about first impressions; the power of this social truth is magnified, exponentially, in the game of Survivor.

 

So which did her in, an idol or an approach? In the end, we’ll never know. Because the existence of the idol had an impact on Kristin’s approach, it added oil to the pavement, it put her in a place where she was spinning her wheels and couldn’t pivot.

 

She simply couldn’t get any traction.

 

Jamie Newton

23rd Place: Jamie Newton

 

You know that tribe swap I mentioned, the one on the end of Friday? It ended up creating a beast of a tribe, Moz, which had four Survivors and four newbies. They utterly annihilated the opposition all day Saturday; indeed, they went to Tribal only twice, and one of those times, they threw the challenge (yep, you heard that right; the Survivors were there to WIN).

 

And Jamie? He was NOT on that tribe. Instead, he and Nina were surrounded by Survivor SuperFans who were determined to vote them out.

 

Time for a production confession: Early on, Jamie was driving me NUTS. Shortly after the game began, rather than follow the instructions and clues he had been given, Jamie wandered off into the woods of Maine in search of his tribe. Later, he was showboating during the first challenge (and flipping his canoe in the process). All of it made me wonder if he was taking the event seriously. Certainly, his fellow Survivor alums were invested from the outset, and were concerned with Jamie’s early approach. In fact, at one point, I could hear Joel – in that intense but congenial way of his – reminding Jamie that they were there to play the game the right way.

 

It was during that same challenge, though, that I saw the true Jamie, the guy with the huge heart: Matt was struggling in the water and needed help, and Jamie was the one who dove in to give it.

 

That kindness and compassion continued on Friday: He knew that his new tribe was going to target either Nina or him, and he was hell-bent on making sure that Nina stuck around. He picked fights around camp and antagonized as many players as possible to make sure that they wanted him gone, a campaign of self-sabotage that was as effective as it was sacrificial. What made this all the more remarkable is that Jamie, by nature, is goofy and funny and as real as they come; being a confrontational jerk is not in his nature, and yet that’s the role he chose to play to give Nina an opportunity to have the Survivor experience that Worlds Apart might not have given her.

 

The story didn’t stop there, though: Nina had found a hidden immunity idol – a real one – and was going to give it to Jamie, but he refused. Maybe with an idol in your pocket, Jamie told her, you can convince some newbies to work with you. Jamie left the game with his head held high and his trademark grin; he had done all he could to give a dear friend a second chance.

 

And it wouldn’t take long for that friend, and their idol, to get their revenge.

 

Chris P.

22nd place: Chris P

 

In many ways, the reverse tribe swap, and the dominant tribe that emerged from it, was the central story of the season: one cannot tell the tale of 2015 without the swap at the heart of it. And the catalyst for, if not the true architect of, the Moz juggernaut was Chris Page. Amidst the mayhem as the swap unfolded, Chris cut a deal with first one Survivor and then another (Joel then Brooke), and when the dust settled, the fate of everyone in the game – including Chris himself – was sealed.

 

The rationalization that Chris offered for his move was, on the surface, a reasonable one: As the weak third tribe, Waya, was wiped out, his tribe, Tawadi, and Moz would coast to the merge, and at that point, the Survivor alums would owe him one.

 

Dig a little deeper, though, and his story doesn’t hold up:

• Chris knew that the second and third place teams would both go to Tribal Council after almost every Saturday challenge (that’s the only way you can get from 24 players to a 10 to 12 player merge tribe). By making Moz so strong, he was dooming his own tribe.

• Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that Chris was okay with that. It’s certainly possible: The plan was to vote out Jamie and Nina first, and Chris probably assumed that he would be safe even after that as the rest of the Tawadi newbies went after one another. It’s a precarious path to the merge, but not entirely implausible.

• And yet, Chris had to know that his move would neither endear him to the other players nor win over the Survivors (who would see him as someone with an endgame resume). He knew, or should have realized, that stacking the deck for Moz would make him a target for the rest of the game. Even had he made the merge, he was a dead man walking… so why do it at all?

 

I’ll let Chris himself tell you (from his Friday night confessional): “Who’s the star of today? Who is everyone talking about?”

 

That’s right: This was all about ego.

 

Chris, like so many Survivor players, wanted to put his stamp on the game. It didn’t really matter if the move was successful, so long as it was memorable. And it was, if for all the wrong reasons.

 

Ah, but hubris invites the wrath of the Survivor gods: Ego makes us blind, and when Chris didn’t see the need to split the vote to protect against an idol (one that he knew was in play), he was the next one to go. Justice – herself a blind goddess, ever swift – did not wait long to balance the scales.

 

In the end, though, I suppose Chris achieved his goal; the truth of this, and many other games, is that not everyone plays to win. If one is more concerned with being remembered than HOW one is remembered, then mission accomplished: His name, though it may provoke profanity from some of his castmates, is indeed synonymous with the season. And such is the fate of vainglorious villains in stories and Survivor… although as for that, he’s more of a divisive character than a villain, wouldn’t you say?

 

Because true villains are never third boots.

 

Jessie

21st Place: Jessie

 

I learned an important lesson watching Jessie play the game, and I have since added it to the Survivor Commandments:

Survivor Commandment #71: Never Be an Easy Boot.

 

At any stage of Survivor – but most acutely after a swap, which disrupts power dynamics – players are looking for easy boots. In a game that is an endless desert of paranoia and betrayal, an easy boot is a strategic oasis: Everyone can take a break, set aside their differences, and unify a vote.

 

Jessie, unfortunately, allowed herself to become an easy boot.

 

I have to wonder if part of the story was being related to a winner: From the outset, Jessie was trying to hide that her father, Russell O’Cain, was the winner of DWSC Season 1. Survivor is a game of secrets, of course, but when you’re trying to hide your personal history from even your allies, they’re never fully going to trust you. And, not that I need to tell you this, but you don’t get very far in Survivor without trust.

 

During her Friday night confessionals, Jessie was certain she was fine – and was going to remain so – because she was laying low and keeping to herself. The problem was that the other players weren’t talking about Jessie in their confessionals, which meant she wasn’t connected; and when you’re not connected, you’re either a useful number or a dangerous variable. And once prevailing opinion veers in the latter direction – as it did for Jessie – you become an easy boot.

 

*****

 

With the second Moz victory – leading to four eliminations from the two other tribes – the rout was on. As it is in Survivor, so it is in the DWSC: Once a dominant tribe is able to start to start sitting players – and with Survivor alums there to quickly analyze a challenge and this sit players strategically – the gap between the groups just keeps getting wider. At that point, it wasn’t if Waya and Tawadi were going to Tribal Council, but who would be leaving when they got there.

 

*****

 

Mike

20th Place: Mike

 

Another Survivor lesson learned: Sometimes we’re blindsided – and sometimes we blindside ourselves.

 

On Friday evening, two hidden immunity idols were put into play; clues were available as of Friday morning, attached to each of the tribe flags, as well as in a “message in a bottle” that was available as a reward throughout the day. Players didn’t have access to the location of the idols – the community watering hole – until after the Friday challenges had ended (although one player tried to jump the gun; more on that later). Once the tribes had returned to their camps, the race was on…

 

Not everyone can win the race, of course, and so those who possessed clues had a choice to make: Leave camp – right after the swap – in search of the idols, or stay and bond with their new tribes (and run the risk of someone else finding them).  Benji, who knew where the idols were hidden, was determined to find them, and Mike joined him as they raced for the watering hole. Unfortunately, they were too late – Survivor, although played over days, can be decided in a matter of minutes – but it took them a long time to realize that their search was in vain.

 

And while Benji and Mike made their extended foray into the woods, the newly formed Waya tribe came together without them. One thing they bonded over? A shared distrust of Benji and Mike.

 

A gregarious and enthusiastic SuperFan, Mike thought he had done everything right. And perhaps he had, up to a point: His analysis of his opponents throughout Thursday and Friday was spot-on, and he had worked hard to ingratiate himself with the other players. But it was never going to be enough; his brutal blindside – a wound that never fully heals – was as inevitable as it was painful.

 

He had made one bad decision, but sometimes that’s enough: He had gone idol-hunting with Benji, and he shouldn’t have.

 

Nina Poersch

19th Place: Nina

 

Missed opportunities: Players regret them, editors expose them, and viewers lament them (while also – admit it! – being entertained by them).

 

One of the most indelible aspects of being in production: Seeing missed opportunities unfold right in front of you… but not being able to say a word. It’s one thing to want to reach through our TV screens and shout at players to make the damn move. It’s another thing altogether when they’re a few feet in front of you.

 

Nina is sharp. She’s a student of the game. And she knew what needed to happen.

 

(She also happens to be an extraordinarily kind person. Since its inception, the DWSC has benefitted greatly from the participation of some incredible Survivor alums. Play, and you’ll see.)

 

During her exit interview, Nina – who knew that her tribemates would regret their missed opportunities – nailed it: “My tribe was shortsighted. They didn’t trust me, but why? I would have worked with them. They were so focused on eliminating the Survivors that they didn’t stop to think about why I was on their tribe in the first place. Joel and Brooke didn’t pick me, they didn’t want me. After the merge, I could have pretended to go back with the Survivors – and then taken them out. If they had worked with me and Jamie, we could have helped them win.”

 

What if the others players had listened to her plea? What if she had become a spy and torn apart the Survivors from the inside? What if the newbies had heard the wisdom in her words?

 

What if, what if, what if – the steady rhythm of regret, the pulsing heartbeat of missed opportunity. Somewhere out there in the multiverse, there is a “reality” reality wherein Nina and Jamie join forces with a few bold newbies, win a couple of challenges, and wreak havoc after the merge. Nina had an idol and an idea, and sometimes that – along with a little luck – is enough.

 

Oh, what a game that might have been.

 

(But what actually happened was pretty darn great, too.)

 

Carl

18th Place: Carl

 

Another production lesson: Having helped select the members of this cast, I now have a far deeper appreciation for Lynne Spillman and her team of casting agents. For the DWSC production team, balancing all of the various demographic elements – age, gender, geographical location – with our collective desire to focus on running the game with the best possible players is really, really hard. I can see why CBS and SEG cut so many corners when it comes to casting (I still don’t LIKE it, of course, but when you’re dealing with thousands of applications, you create shortcuts).

 

Thankfully, unlike the actual show, the DWSC production team does not cast for conflict or recruit castaways in Santa Monica bars; we’re looking for interesting people who have the empathy and understanding to play the game both hard and well. The good news is that we get a lot of applicants from folks like that; the bad news is that we end up having to cut some really great people. And nowhere did the cuts hurt more than with the “Middle Aged Male Survivor SuperFan,” which – both for the DWSC and the real show – is always the deepest applicant pool.

 

Carl was in that pool, and, without revealing too much of our inner workings – gotta maintain some mystery, right? – one person was dumb enough to argue against Carl’s inclusion in the cast. Okay, fine, I’ll throw the moron under a bus: It was me. Such a fool, that guy.

 

In the end, smarter and wiser heads prevailed; Carl was the complete package, a smart and social guy who also happens to be a challenge beast. I knew all of this, of course, but there was another middle aged SuperFan, a charmer, a guy who had been in the casting mix for Survivor: Nicaragua, who I thought would make for a more compelling character. The rest of the casting team, though, had complete confidence in Carl.

 

They were right. He brought it. And in another season, another sort of swap, he’s a contender.

 

Eventually, though, when you’re a triple threat and your tribe is losing every challenge, the other players almost inevitably realize, “Wait a second – we’re keeping him because he can help us win challenges, right? But we’re not winning anything! We can lose just as badly without him – so let’s write his name down.”

 

And so he went.

 

Katy

17th Place: Katy

 

There’s an old saying in baseball: You can’t win the pennant in April, but you certainly can lose it. The point: If you don’t start strong, the season is gonna be a long, uphill climb. And in Survivor, just as in baseball, first impressions – and early results – are infinitely important.

 

Remember the opening 2-hour barge row? There was a map to help the players navigate the winding pond. And Katy lost it.

 

In some ways, she never completely recovered from that. In the end, the map was insignificant. But the mistake of misplacing it certainly wasn’t.

 

I don’t want to give the wrong impression, though: I loved having Katy in the cast. She had been a member of the Dream Team the previous year, she was high energy, and she was an enthusiastic Durham local. Heck, her application photo was of her in a Wonder Woman costume!

 

Know what I think ultimately did her in? Her kindness made her too comfortable. Paranoia is a useful tool in Survivor, and I got the sense that all the things that made her a really nice person – she’s trusting, open, earnest – kept her from anticipating the Machiavellian maneuverings of the other players.

 

Jared/Benji

16th Place: Benji

 

An honest admission: DWSC returnees – just like on the real show – have undeniable advantages over newbies. They possess a measure of perspective that people new to the game just don’t have. And that level of remove, of social and psychological detachment, allows for an exceedingly advantageous degree of situational awareness.

 

To whit: Benji – who first played in DWSC Season 2 – correctly deduced that the Survivor alums were going to be a fourth tribe rather than integrated into the existing three. He also assumed, rightly, that there would be hidden immunity idol clues and quickly located them on the tribe flags. And, based on the clue and his knowledge of the location, he knew precisely where the idols were hidden.

 

There is a downside to being a returnee, though: Almost without exception, they’re motivated to play again because it didn’t go well the first time around. The pain of losing can, understandably perhaps, lead a player down a darker path; the need for redemption can lead to an uncompromising, and for those it impacts, questionable approach to the game. This is especially true if the person we’re talking about is an intense competitor in the first place.

 

And so it was with Benji, better known by me and the other Bezo tribe members as Jared, forever one of our family.

 

blindsideWithout rehashing all of the events of my season, what you need to know is this: Eventual winner Laura and I orchestrated Jared’s blindside – he was the first player out of the game – and his early exit was excruciating for him.

What that pain – and his desire to avoid being the DWSC Francesca, booted first twice – led Jared to do this past summer included:

 

** Crafting a new identity for himself as Benjamin Banner, a mild-mannered Chicago Cubs-loving Mainer (which included a summer of following the Cubs; keep in mind, Jared is a huge Red Sox fan)
** Shaving his distinctive, beloved beard (he was borderline unrecognizable without it)
** Creating and then smuggling a fake hidden immunity idol into the game
** Also bringing matches, just in case fire was an issue (and it was)
** Bending and/or breaking the rules of engagement, including an attempt to leave the challenge arena to grab the hidden immunity idols (I had to chase him down on this one)

 

(BTW, anyone planning to play this summer, please take note: Our pre-game search procedures will be more comprehensive from now on, and if you’re caught trying to sneak anything in, we’ll have an alternate on hand to take your spot.)

 

Despite the great lengths Jared went to in an effort to avoid putting a target on his back, the “mild-mannered” part of his Benji portrayal went by the wayside when the challenges began. It started in the maze, when he shouted at his tribemates; escalated with some verbal sparring during “Jump Shot,” a water-based ball-tossing game; and culminated with aggression and frustration in the last event of the day, Last Idol Standing, when he threw his idol holder high into the air after losing. Jared wanted to win – there’s no hiding that part of him – and his approach clearly bothered the other players on his tribe.

 

On Friday night, as I gave the production team an update on the tribal dynamics (based on conversations and confessionals), I had to break the foreboding news: Jared’s worst fears were perilously close to coming true: His tribe was talking about voting him out.

 

Fast-forward to Saturday morning, when Waya – thanks to a fateful coin flip – went to Tribal Council first. I didn’t know if I could bear to see my Bezo brother blindsided a second time. And so I sat in the audience, holding his wife’s hand, waiting, wondering, worrying, as the votes were read. The name on the first piece of parchment? Benji. Oh no. Not again. Please.

 

And then Kristin’s name started popping up. Once, twice… and then it was over. Benji – Jared – had survived.

 

***

 

What had saved Benji, interestingly enough, was being Jared: Jenny, who was helping shape the strategy on their tribe, knew who he was, and was open to an alliance with him when he approached her (because she, too, had a secret, one that Jared knew: Jenny had attended the previous year’s event to watch her boyfriend Brian play). If Chris P hadn’t skewed the swap or had a few of the Saturday challenges broken better, Benji would have made the merge; he still might have, if Jenny had gone all in at this Tribal Council (more on that in a moment). Instead, Benji left the game in 16th place, another casualty of the swap calamity.

 

His torch snuffed, his head held high, Benji was no more; where he stood was Jared, redemption found and demons dead.

 

(Welcome back, brother.)

 

Candice

15th Place: Candice

 

If you want proof that the game – even our abbreviated, fast-forward version of it – tests you, look no further than Candice, a southern belle from Alabama.

 

She won’t want you to know this, but it’s the truth: She was ready to quit on Friday night. She was cold and hungry, but what really got to her was the isolation; she’s a single mother, and she had never been out of touch with her teenage daughter for more than a day. The fear, the worry, the panic, the pain: It’s all real, and there’s no way to make it end other than to exit the game, by pulling out or by parchment.

 

Something happened that night, though, because after the sun rose on Saturday, Candice had followed Probst’s bellowed advice to dig deep, and had found an inner resolve that she hadn’t known she had. At midnight, she had wanted a shower and a cell phone. At 7am, she wanted nothing more than to make the merge.

 

And she nearly did it: She was one of the final four on her tribe, and her own fate wasn’t sealed until a re-vote after a 2-2 tie. Something that might seem like overstatement but is full of truth: The Candice who arrived at the Crowley farm on Thursday wouldn’t have recognized the one who had her torch snuffed on late Saturday afternoon. She was stronger, sharper, wiser; a player not a pawn.

 

The game that is more than a game had – as it so often does – forged Candice into someone who knows, now, on the other side of uncertainty, that she can stare into the heart of fear, and endure.

 

David Jones

14th Place: David

 

It all started out so well.

 

David – one half of the Survivor Talk with D&D podcasting team and contender for nicest guy on the planet – began the game on a tribe that won the opening barge race (despite much of the muscle being on the other boat). Then, after the self-selection process, he found himself on a tribe with players he liked and, more importantly, could work with. And finally, at the end of that first night, he had connected with Heather, someone he thought could become his One True Person, and he had a full day of challenges on Friday to bond with her.

 

All in all, a pretty good beginning to the game.

 

The pendulum began to swing during the swap: On the one hand, he ended up on the powerhouse Moz tribe; the only way to guarantee yourself safety is to win challenges, and the purple squad was a pretty safe bet. On the other hand, David had been separated from Heather, and Moz was made up of four tightly bonded Survivors and three other newbies, all of whom were eager and willing to work with them. While the Moz challenge dominance kept David away from Tribal for most of Saturday, he knew that when they finally lost – as they did towards the end of the day, after Lisa’s improbable, challenge design-busting fire-building feat – he was going to be in trouble.

 

David, who is incredibly sharp about all things Survivor, looked at the other newbies and saw:

** Matt, who was utterly star-struck with Dr. Jill, Joel, Brooke, and Troyzan, and who the Survivors initially targeted as their all-important fifth alliance member.
** Wendy, who was going to bide her time, refuse to rock the boat, and see what options opened up.
** Bob, who was going to tend the fire, battle in challenges and completely ignore all attempts to strategize.

 

How on earth could David – who, after talking with him for five minutes, you realize is both really nice and really smart – seem less threatening than any of the other newbies, never mind all of them?

 

David did what he could, attempting to ingratiate himself with the Survivors, joining them on a canteen-filling trip to the watering hole (missing by minutes Dr. Jill and Nina getting their hands on two idols). In retrospect, though, he realized that he had done more harm than good; the Survivors had sussed out that he knew what he was doing, and they were in the business of taking out threats. During the Friday confessionals, David was at the top of all of their hit lists.

 

Lady Luck, the Survivor Gods, the fickle fingers of fate: Call circumstance and happenstance what you will, but each and every one of them can be cruel.

 

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: In the DWSC, just as in Survivor, you can’t hide who you are. In the game and in life, David is a genial SuperFan who, given a chance, could turn the game against almost anyone. Sadly for him – and for me, frankly, because I love the guy – who he is was precisely who he needed NOT to be.

 

Turns out nice guys don’t finish last… they finish in 14th place.

 

Jenny

13th Place: Jenny

 

Having now experienced the production side of the game, I can virtually guarantee you that Jeff Probst has a list of long-forgotten pre-merge boots he knows were great players. Whatever the reason – wrong tribe, wrong twist, wrong choice – a castaway he would have bet on at the outset ended up gone before his or her time when things just didn’t work out, a victim of fate or circumstance.

 

I now have a list like that of my own. At the top? Jenny.

 

When she initially applied, I already had high expectations: She was, and is, the girlfriend of the DWSC Survivor Savant, Brian Meagher, a member of the Skog tribe in my season. After Brian and I both ended up on the jury, we had talked about Jenny, her deep understanding of the game, and her multiple victories in his own one-day game, Survivor: Rutland.

 

Needless to say, I was curious to see if she lived up to the hype.

 

And so, last June, I joined Brian, his friends, and Jenny in Rutland State Park for a warp speed game of Survivor. I wasn’t there to win; I was there to watch. Jenny, I am happy to report, didn’t let me down.

 

Jenny possesses that rarest of Survivor skills: Everyone knows she’s dangerous, and yet they’re still willing to work with her. That, combined with the game awareness that comes only with experience, makes her a formidable opponent. Nowhere was this more apparent than when there was a tie at the Final 4; in an effort to avoid drawing rocks (the fire-making gear hadn’t made the trip to the park), she made a persuasive pitch: “Brian and I are voting together: Join us, and you’re guaranteed Final 3. If we draw rocks, yeah, I might go home, but you might, too.” This may seem like an obvious play, but how often do we see someone make it? Usually, stress gets in the way of strategy. But not with Jenny. She plays the game like a seasoned veteran. Probably because she is one.

 

(If you’re curious, Brian won that season of Survivor: Rutland… Jenny came in second… as for me, after thinking of a potentially game-flipping move about five minutes too late, I bowed out in 7th.)

 

And now we return to DWSC 2015, where Jenny was THRILLED with the swap. Indeed, I don’t know that we’ve ever had a more relentlessly confident confessional than the one she gave on Friday night. “I’m in charge of this tribe,” she said, “and I’m in control of this game.”

 

Which explains why she was never in danger early on Saturday. But as the day wore on, and the losses piled up, there were fewer and fewer targets to pick from. And that’s when it happened.

 

Sometimes, probably most of the time, Survivor players are undone by a series of small mistakes. Saying the wrong thing to the wrong person at the wrong moment. Being away from camp when deals are struck. Faltering in a key challenge. But sometimes it all comes down to one choice, the decision that, after the game is over, you want to go back in time and zag rather than zig.

 

Back to Rutland for a moment: After the game was over, Jenny and I talked through what I perceived to be her Survivor strengths and weaknesses. In the latter category, I focused on empathy: “I knew before the game began that you weren’t going to work with me,” I told her. “I could feel it. The best lies are the ones you actually believe while telling them.” The strongest Survivor players are empathetic assassins; Jenny was already an assassin, she just needed to work on the empathy piece.

 

In the early going, I was optimistic: Jenny was connecting with the other players, and they appeared to like and trust her. And she, although never forgetting even for a second that she was playing game, was far more open and empathetic than she had been in Rutland. It seemed that she, and everyone else, believed her lies, because they were built on a foundation of truth.

 

Sadly, however, this carefully cultivated empathy abandoned Jenny when she needed it the most.

 

Had Jenny had the right read on Heather and Chris – had she seen them as they saw themselves and how they saw her, a deep and difficult exercise in empathy – she would have known that they had every intention of being the last two on the sinking Waya ship. To Jenny, logic dictated that she and Heather should stick together and take out Chris. But when the game is falling apart, logic doesn’t stand a chance.

 

What Jenny needed to do – and to her credit, she admitted it immediately after her game had ended – was go all in with Benji when there were four people left in her tribe. Go to a 2-2 tie and risk the rocks. Who knows, maybe she could have used her Rutland move and convinced Heather to flip…

 

Instead, she did what I never thought she would do: She played it safe. The merge wasn’t too far away, she could talk her way out of trouble, maybe Waya could avoid Tribal Council altogether… all of that sounds reasonable, and yet with Moz dominating, and Heather and Chris bonding, Jenny needed to be willing to go home early if she had any hope of sticking around late. 99 times out of 100, I think Jenny makes the right call. This, unfortunately, was the 1 in the 100.

 

One thing I’ve been sure of since last summer: The players in our final six were EXTREMELY lucky that Jenny didn’t make the merge. If she had, I suspect that everything would have turned out MUCH differently. She would have said what needed to be said and done what needed to be done…

 

They didn’t know it at the time – and may not have known it until they read it right here – but our endgamers, blissfully unaware, had narrowly avoided an assassin.

 

Matt

12th Place: Matt

 

Thursday morning. The event only hours away. Production gets a phone call from one of our players.

 

I can’t make it. Death in the family. I’m headed home.

 

We felt awful. He’s a great guy. We’re hoping he’ll join us in a future season. And then… WHAT ARE WE GOING TO DO?

 

There’s this guy. Didn’t make the cast. Lives only a few hours a way. Let’s give him a call. Can’t hurt. WAIT, WHAT? HE TOOK THE DAY OFF JUST IN CASE WE CALLED? NO WAY.

 

He arrives. Nice guy, massive Survivor SuperFan. Asthmatic, though. Gotta keep a watchful eye. Make sure everything’s okay.

 

The first tribe challenge on Friday, he has to be helped from the water after his canoe flips. His tribe rallies around him. But the writing is on the wall.

 

At the swap, he ends up on a tribe full of Survivors. He’s in SuperFan heaven. He shares a tent with them, having been handpicked as their fifth. He’s their goat. The other players on his tribe are doomed.

 

Saturday. Challenges for immunity. The game gets serious. The guy who nearly drowned in the first challenge on Friday finishes the puzzle in the first challenge on Saturday, winning immunity for Moz.

 

The crowd cheers.

 

Later, another puzzle. It’s tight, neck and neck with Jenny. She’s really good at puzzles. You can feel it. EVERYONE’S CHEERING FOR MATT. They LOVE him.

 

He wins, seconds to spare.

 

His tribe hugs him. Lifts him high. The crowd ROARS. Tears are shed. The exultation of redemption. An improbable storybook ending. BUT IT WASN’T OVER.

 

The very next challenge, a choice: Take a point for the team or keep a hidden immunity idol. He’s supposed to take the point. He knows this.

 

HOLD ON A SECOND – HE KEPT THE IDOL.

 

After the next challenge, Moz finally goes to Tribal Council. Votes are cast. Should be straight-forward. BUT MATT DIDN’T VOTE THE WAY DR. JILL TOLD HIM TO.

 

The Survivors start to worry. Matt’s gone rogue. He’s good at puzzles, he has an idol, and he has a mind of his own. The next challenge begins. Brooke blows through the course. But Dr. Jill just stands there. WAIT – ARE THEY THROWING THE CHALLENGE?

 

They are.

 

Why would they, unless there’s someone they’re targeting? But who on their tribe are they worried about? David is gone. Wendy is working with them. Bob is Bob. OH NO. NO WAY. THAT WOULD BE HEARTLESS.

 

But wait, he has an idol. He’ll be fine. Unless… NOOOOOOOOOO!

 

Dr. Jill had gotten him to give it to her. Game over. Betrayed by his heroes. Blindsided on the verge of the merge.

 

Oh, how the crowd booed then; we’ll never hear its like again.

 

And then, for the kid who had won our hearts but not the game, the applause was thunder, the tears were rain, for we had witnessed magic.

 

AND THEN…

 

At the post-game barbecue, a speech. The game had changed him. He was no longer a slave to his asthma. He had lived the dream and found himself. He was free.

 

I know what you’re going to say.

 

There is NO WAY any of this happened.

 

Improbable. Implausible. Impossible.

 

And yet it did.

 

*****

 

And so we hit the merge with four Survivors (Dr. Jill, Joel, Troy, and Brooke)…

… five newbies from Waya and Tawadi (Chris, Heather, Jeff, Lisa, Tina)…

… and two Moz in the middle (Wendy and Bob).

 

Want to know what happened?

 

Read Part II (coming soon)

 

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