The poker player bluff
Intuitively, you would think professional poker players should make excellent Survivor players. They make their livelihood doing similar-to-Survivor things, such as misleading their competition for financial gain, paying attention to subtle cues in their opponents' body language to detect attempted deception, and having to adjust to and play their way out of misfortunate deals. Despite that, the actual performance record for poker players in Survivor is, well, pretty poor. Jean-Robert Bellande and Jim Rice were the best, out right after the merge. Since then: Garrett Adelstein, booted at his second Tribal Council, and Anna Khait, ousted at her first. Where did this idea go wrong?
True, that sample size is vanishingly small (especially since we don't include ex-Survivor players who later got into poker, such as Albert Destrade and Boston Rob). But from watching Anna, it's possible that poker players have fared poorly because the card game only offers half the experience they need for Survivor: while they're skilled at deceiving (and detecting deceit), they have far less opportunity for social persuasion. Poker is an individual game, whereas Survivor is an exceptionally social game, especially before the merge. There's a big difference between distracting your fellow players from the strength or weakness of your poker hand with a stream of harmless, chit-chatty banter, versus actively talking people into joining you in doing something in Survivor. There are no alliances in poker. Social skills help, but they're not required. Also in poker, everyone knows everyone else is trying to be deceptive. In Survivor, however, you have to create and maintain trust with as many people as you can, as early as you can. In just about all Survivor poker player cases (except maybe Jim), this has been their Achilles heel.
True to form (read, for example, her interview with Gordon Holmes) Anna's people-reading skills are top-notch. Despite that, when she was shown strategizing, she always seemed to come across as transparently schemy. And while she was able to generate solid bonds with Julia and Michele, she came across almost as a bit arrogant in her Ep3 pitch to bring in Caleb, which was essentially: "You can't beat us, so you might as well be the guy we boot right before the Final Three. If not, we'll offer that to someone else." An offer that was mostly stick and very little carrot. In this episode, her attempts to sow mistrust about Tai and his propensity to wander off looking for idols were thorough and ruthless, but we never really saw her just bonding with people, and giving them a reason to keep her. Admittedly, that wasn't the story the editors were telling, and they only had so much time. But still: Greetings, new tribemates! Over here isTai, who's charming and keeps the camp running and feeds us mangos and can teach us how to eat coconuts (but might look for an idol occasionally). And over there, here is Anna, who... has story after story about how she doesn't trust Tai. Tough choice!
Did Tai make the right move?
Yes, eventually... and heavily aided by Scot. Tai had no real ties to anyone except Caleb, who is now long gone. He was on good terms with the three Beauty women, but going with them would only guarantee him 4th place. Going with Scot, however, gives him a new alliance, and if fate should remove Cydney before the merge, he has a superidol-powered three-person alliance with Scot and Jason. (If Cydney is still around post-merge, however, Tai is back in slot #4, unless he can convince the Brawn men to blindside Cydney in order to keep both halves of the super-idol in their alliance.) Either way, he's definitely has the potential to trade up by going with Scot.
Over at RHAP, Sophie Clarke tried to argue that the impending return of Julia from her Brawn beach exile made it incumbent upon Tai to try to keep Anna around. In fact, however, that would have been a terrible idea, at least for Tai. Keeping the three-woman Beauty alliance intact is in nobody's best interest except the three women in that alliance. With Anna gone, Tai even has the option to flip back to Beauty, and usurp Anna's slot in that alliance, since none of the women seem to like Nick very much. The newly formed bromance with Scot only makes that all the more likely. If Beauty and Brawn both get whittled down to three remaining players (with, say, Nick leaving the game next episode), they could band together as a six-person super-alliance, and seize control of the game at the merge, Pagonging the five remaining Brains, who foolishly tried to win challenges pre-merge in a three-tribe season. Barring Neal wreaking havoc on that plan by deploying his own idol, of course.
So yes, there's no real downside to Tai's decision, and plenty of upside in saving his idol at least one round. With a major assist to Scot. They're in.
Up all night to get lucky
We tweeted about how the eventual winner fared in past seasons with tribe swaps (there have actually been 21 seasons with swaps, 22 including this one). And the answer, frankly, was surprising: almost every winner had great luck from the swap. By our count, 17 of those 21 winners either found themselves on a new tribe in which they had superior numbers (Jeremy, Mike, Cochran), or simply avoided Tribal Council completely between the swap and the merge (Natalie Anderson, Tyson, Kim, Parvati). Most also had numbers once they hit the merge, with the major exception being Denise Stapley, who was in an extreme minority position both post-swap (okay, post-dissolution) and post-merge. What's even more astounding is that the remaining winners who didn't have beneficial swaps are the ones many fans consider lower-tier winners, people who just got lucky: Bob Crowley, Amber Brkich, Vecepia Towery. Obviously, this is backwards: they survived despite not having great luck. (We'll allow that Boston Rob's friendship with Lex may have have been a bit of luck that tipped the scales in Amber's favor.)
Many people picked Anna as a possible winner this season, and clearly, luck was not on her side with this swap. We think it's time to acknowledge that, for all the emphasis analytically minded fans put on social and strategic skill in winning Survivor, simple luck is clearly also a gigantic factor.
As a sidenote: your winner is most likely one of the Brains now on Gondol, or someone from Chan Loh.
Land of the takes that are at best lukewarm:
Kaoh Rong Episode 5 recaps and commentary
Exit interviews: Anna Khait
Episode 5 Podcasts