Top Ten Survivor Players Ever

18 Feb

[Updated to include seasons through #31]

I can’t help it – having ranked the previous seasons a few posts ago, I got to thinking about the greatest individual players in Survivor history.

I gave this list much thought, but before hitting “publish” I thought I had best review some other top tens in the blogosphere… had I made an inexcusable oversight, or are any top tens that differ from mine utter poppycock? The latter turned out to be the case, but I had best address some other choices out there that at least forced me to put my choices under some scrutiny.

Fallacy alert: Some proceeded on the assumption that to be one of the best players, you must be a winner, and only winners should be considered among the best players. That sounds logical… to someone who has never seen the show. Imagine a team of Fabio, Sophie, Natalie from Samoa, and Amber facing a team of Ian, Rafe, Marcus from Gabon, and Ami from Vanuatu. That’s four million-dollar winners versus four players who didn’t even make the finals of their season… but which team would you want? I rest my case, even though the latter four aren’t even in my top ten!

Anyway, that argument (and the lame winners who go with it) having been dealt with, let me quickly dismiss these more serious candidates, in alphabetical order:

Cirie: I don’t share America’s fascination with her (or Jeff Probst’s), but I do admit that she had a strong social game and was awfully crafty throughout. A successful, good player, but not top ten. And she was awfully good in her fourth appearance, Game Changers.

Colby: I had him in my top ten until Kim knocked him out. A tough competitor in Australia but goofed by taking the wrong person to the finals. Plus, in his subsequent two Survivor appearances he was a dud.

Danni: A deserving winner of a great season who made some very shrewd moves and survived an amazing final challenge. But Stephenie, Gary Hogeboom and Rafe were right there with her as the best players of that season.

Jonny Fairplay: The most thought-provoking choice of any of the lists I looked at. Fairplay played hard on Pearl Islands and had tricks up his sleeve, plus the idea of being such a jerk that everyone wants to take you to the finals is brilliant in a way and should have worked. Although of course that strategy makes it impossible to actually win at the finals. But Jon’s half-assed appearance on Fans vs. Favorites and overall one-dimensionality limit how high he can go.

Rob Cesternino: He was no factor on All-Stars. On Amazon, he had a heyday that lasted 2-3 episodes and then he was gone. He is essentially the Steve Kerr of Survivor: much better as a commentator than a player.

Sandra: If she’s won the show twice, that proves it’s not luck, right? Well, sort of. While an unpleasant person who’s not much for challenges, she was a good strategist who mastered the art of staying out of the fray while bigger personalities self-destructed. I give her credit for that, but luck also played a part both times. Her best game actually came in Game Changers even though she was taken out fairly early.

Todd: Other than Richard Hatch and Boston Rob, he’s the only other obviously devious guy to win it all. Great finals oratory saved his bacon, and he strategized very well in his season. Just not top-ten caliber.

And then there’s someone nobody mentioned but I had to think about for a while: Brenda. “You’re the black widow, king cobra and black mamba all rolled into one,” said Marty. Brenda was one sharp cookie and used her looks to soften up all of the men. She was the best player on her season. Was she penalized too much for being on the show’s worst season ever? Ultimately, I had to leave her off the list because of her last day on the show when she seemed like she was “too good” to scramble for a vote. An Amanda, Parvati, or even Danni would never have been that passive. Then when Brenda came back for Survivor Caramoan, she was low-key and aside from a couple of challenge wins, didn’t do much.

Since I originally wrote this post, there’s a new star in the Survivor firmament, namely Malcolm. An excellent player, but he didn’t do enough for me to knock anyone off this list. For all of his positives, the negatives are that he never made the finals, overconfidence knocked him out in two of his three seasons, and he was a good but not great challenge competitor. If this were the top fifteen, he would make the grade, but it’s not and he doesn’t.

I should also mention Tony. Yes, he played very hard and was the best player on his season, but was over-aggressive and was fortunate to stay in the game. If I were ranking the most entertaining players he would be a lock for the top five.

A player who learned from Tony and played a similar game to him in some ways is Sarah. She was part of every key vote on Game Changers and engineered one of the all-time “gangster” moves in getting the Legacy Advantage. Right now I just can’t see moving Sarah ahead of Mike into the top ten, I reserve the right to change my mind on that down the road, however.

And then there is Stephenie. This New Jersey gal is tough as nails, very athletic and incredibly competitive. She was the last surviving member of her tribe in Palau. When she came back for Guatemala, she made it to the final two and you could make an argument that she deserved to win. The final challenge in Guatemala with Stephenie, Rafe, and Danni was very memorable. It came down to the two women and Stephenie gutted it out a really long time but finally slid to the ground and burst into tears. Stephenie didn’t have the social graces of some of the top players and could rub people the wrong way, but she is still one of the best to play to date. But ten others were better.

Here is my list, in reverse order to maximize suspense:

#10 Mike (Worlds Apart)

Pulled off the incredibly impressive feat of winning five of the last six immunity challenges (and he played an idol the one time he didn’t win). Every other player was gunning for him all six weeks, so if he had one even one less he would not have made the finals. His social game was also good except for his food auction blunder.

Why he’s not even higher: See his most memorable moment, below.

Most memorable moment: His one misstep of the season, a promise to Dan. At the food auction, Mike, Dan, and Carolyn agreed to each spend $20 for a letter from home to stay on equal footing in bidding on the challenge advantage. Mike told Dan he wouldn’t try a trick, but he did, going to the end of the line and not putting down the $20. He reconsidered after a moment but lost Dan’s trust from then on.

#9 Kim (One World)

She won four challenges but her main skill was making everyone like her even as she manipulated them. Had a sincere way of looking people in the eye, and everyone thought she was on their side.

Why she’s not even higher: Had the weakest competition of any top player and had it too easy in her season.

Most memorable moment: Didn’t really have one, another reason why she’s not ranked higher.

#8 Russell (Samoa, Heroes vs. Villains, Redemption Island)

At first I saw Russell as a hissable villain, but then I began cheering for him during his incredible comeback in Samoa. His tribe went to the merge down 8-4 and incredibly managed to get seven consecutive people from the other tribe voted out!

Best finder of immunity idols since that twist was introduced, and pioneered the strategy of looking for one before the announcement that one had been placed! Russell is tireless, and he gets in the heads of his competitors.

I’m not sure we’ll see a better duel than the Rob vs. Russell battle that raged through Heroes vs. Villains. This was up there with Godzilla versus Mothra or the Hulk vs. the Thing. The Survivor producers tried to recapture that magic in Redemption Island, but Russell’s teammates were so obsessed with getting him out that they tanked a challenge on purpose to do so, a strategic blunder that they never recovered from.

Got to the finals on his first two seasons. Definitely should have won the first time, and probably both times.

Why he’s not ranked even higher: The same reason he has never won: Russell is not about making friends except for strategic purposes, and flying under the radar is not his M.O. People get mad at him for outmaneuvering them.

Most memorable moment: There are so many, but I’d have to go with the Tribal Council “No, not this time” moment that ousted Tyson (which I’ve already covered in two other posts).

#7 Ozzy (Cook Islands, Fans vs. Favorites, South Pacific, Game Changers)

The freakishly athletic guy climbs trees and swims like a jungle animal. When it was time for a concentration-type challenge he had the concentration of a Zen master. Strung together a number of challenge wins in South Pacific. Made it to the finals of Cook Islands, only losing by one vote 5-4, and was the last person voted out of South Pacific.

Why he’s not even higher: Did not master the social game. Got crushes on a couple of the women in the game which led him to make poor decisions.

Most memorable moment: Despite all of his challenge prowess, his most memorable moment is probably in South Pacific after he led a scheme to send him to Redemption Island on purpose. His speech before the challenge about being betrayed was a bad acting job that had the other tribe snickering.

#6 Amanda (China, Fans vs. Favorites, Heroes vs. Villains)

An excellent strategist who engineered many a key vote, including more than one blindside. Formed strong alliances in the game (Todd in China, Parvati in Fans vs. Favorites, and also with James in multiple seasons). Did pretty well in challenges too.

Made the finals of her first two seasons, making it close the second time at 5-3. Should have won Fans vs. Favorites for sure.

Why she’s not even higher: The only thing missing is her ability to “close the deal” by winning over a jury. Women in the game seem intimidated by her looks, and sometimes other players don’t see her as sincere.

 Most memorable moment: In Fans vs. Favorites, Amanda tells everyone she didn’t find the idol at Exile Island, and we are not shown her finding it. Then she pulls it out at Tribal Council – the votes against her do not count. She was telling the truth, too, having found it at camp later.

#5 Richard (Borneo, All-Stars)

The mastermind who basically invented the concept of the alliance. In All-Stars he didn’t do so well, but everyone had their sights on him from the start.

Why he’s not higher: If he were on a Survivor today, with what works strategically and and what doesn’t being so well-established, he would still be a great player but would not dominate the way he did in Season One.

Most memorable moment: Upon being voted out of All-Stars, he exclaims “I’ve been bamboozled!”

#4 Parvati (Cook Islands, Fans vs. Favorites, Heroes vs. Villains)

The best female player to date. In Cook Islands all she did was flirt, in her other two seasons she flirted with everyone too but used that skill to devastating effect, becoming one of the most dangerous players in the game

She won Fans vs. Favorites and was more deserving than Sandra in Heroes vs. Villains, losing the final vote 6-3 with Russell getting no votes. Even in Cook Islands she made it to sixth. She has spent more days on Survivor than anyone but Boston Rob, who played four seasons to her three.

Why she’s not even higher: While her social game is arguably the best of any player, and she was solid in challenges, she’s not a super- athlete like those ranked ahead of her.

Most memorable moment: In Heroes vs. Villains, she gives two idols (one of which she kept secret from Russell) to tribemates at Tribal Council.

#3 Yul (Cook Islands)

Sort of a superhero, a great athlete with a genius IQ as well as being a likable guy. He found an immunity idol in the second episode and used his possession of it to his advantage throughout the season without ever actually playing it. He teamed with Ozzy to make a comeback despite being down 8-4, and edged Ozzy in the finals.

Why he’s not even higher: While he was the best player in his only season, the competition was less than other top players have faced – Parvati was not the player she later became, and Ozzy was Yul’s ally. It would have been interesting to see Yul against someone like Boston Rob, Terry Dietz, Russell, or Stephenie.

Most memorable moment: None, as behind-the-scenes maneuvering rather than making a big splash was his secret.

#2 Tom (Palau and Heroes vs. Villains)

All hail Tom. Tom was your basic women-want-to-have-him-men-want-to-be-him type, and despite being 40 and grey-haired when the show was shot, he dominated like almost no other. He outlasted Ian in an incredibly grueling final challenge in a season when many challenges were very tough, and the season had a number of good players vying with him.

Why he’s not even higher: While he was unbelievable in Palau, when he came back for Heroes and Villains he was not the same player (though in fairness he was 45 that second time around), and the only player ranked ahead of him dominated multiple seasons.

Most memorable moment: He killed a shark on-camera. How much more impressive can you get than that?

#1 “Boston” Rob Mariano (Marquesas, All-Stars, Heroes vs. Villains, Redemption Island).

Could I choose anyone else and keep a straight face? When the best strategist and the best challenge competitor in the game are one person, that makes things pretty clear-cut.

I did not see his first season in Marquesas when he didn’t even make the jury, but let’s look at the rest of his body of work: In All-Stars after winning over Amber, he gets himself and his girlfriend to the finals and ends up finishing second and married to the million-dollar winner. In Heroes vs. Villains he delivers a great battle with Russell despite not making the jury. Then came his masterstroke, Redemption Island, where he picked the perfect 6-person tribe that he took all the way to the final 6, and won the final vote 8-1, winning the final challenge and plenty of other challenges along the way.

Heck, he even went on The Amazing Race and dominated that, only losing when his competitors convinced an airline to bring a  plane that was on the runway back to the terminal in an incredibly suspicious turn of events.

Most memorable moment: In Redemption Island, Rob gets the tribe off of their beach, fakes an upset stomach and says he has to go to the bathroom, then sprints away to search for the immunity idol.

The tribe has spoken.

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3 Responses to “Top Ten Survivor Players Ever”

  1. Pete Zahut April 11, 2013 at 10:49 am #

    good list but I’m not so sure about boston rob being #1. It took him 4 times to win! and redemption island was a f**king joke! it was like rob was playing with a bunch of mentally impaired children.

  2. delishbandung December 31, 2016 at 2:23 pm #

    Sandra should’ve been number one. There’s a reason why she pulled off the way she pulled off. Her strategy worked. And it may look simple, just be under the radar and you’ll get to the final TC. But, with her, she add the winning factor into it, the one thing that under the rada players cannot do, she can. Twice.

    Agree. There was luck in play, but she placed herself so flawlessly that not only she went into the final TC, but also won the game. Twice. How is that not the queen of the game?

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Survivor: Game Changers Final Thoughts | Barry's Reality Blog - May 27, 2017

    […] free to follow this link to see if Sarah cracked my best players of all time list. As a returning-player season, nobody was eligible for my best alliances of all time list. And much […]

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