Survivor V: The Gamer's Perspective

By Thorin N. Tatge

Week 4

This is the first week where Survivor Thailand contestants have had strategic decisons to make regarding their alliances and votes, the meat of Survivor.  Up until this week, there were no alliances on Chuay Gahn, just relationships.  In fact, there may still be no alliances, but the topic has emphatically come up.  On Sook Jai it seems clear that five contestants (Ken, Shii Ann, Penny, Erin and Jake) have allied, but there have been no strategic aspects and no real decisions surrounding this alliance.  It formed naturally when the other three tribe-members segregated themselves from the rest.  Now, we have actual strategy to talk about, and I say Hooray.

The two most important individuals to discuss when it comes to strategy in this episode are Ghandia and Helen.  An odd couple who were enemies in Episode 2, these two woman were seemingly brought together in the wake of Ted's misbehavior.  Mom points out that Helen has probably had plenty of similar experiences and that she has doubtless had plenty of chance to sympathize with points of view similar to Ghandia's in her work in a rape victim's support group.  I might add that Helen has felt insecure ever since the fiasco with the five-hour water trip, and getting two votes at Tribal Council didn't help.  She wanted to grow close to whomever she can, even if it was Ghandia.  This, in my opinion, is Helen playing with her heart.

Later, after the tribe had had a chance to develop their opinions on the issue, Helen was approached by Ghandia flat out for an alliance.  In this scene, just before Tribal Council, we are treated to one of the best reasoned and most lucid strategic arguments ever shown on Survivor.  Ghandia relates why she's willing to vote for her second choice (Clay) instead of her first (Ted), and it makes sense.  I thought Helen was convinced and would vote for Clay with Ghandia and Jan.  But she had finally decided to cement her alliegence.  Helen voted for Ghandia after all.

My mother didn't understand why Helen could possibly do such a thing, so I imagine many viewers asked themselves the same question.  I think there are a couple of important points here.  First, Helen voted for Ghandia because she didn't want to be left in a minority.  She knows that if she and Jan were to segregate themselves from Clay, Ted and Brian, they would vote for her and not Jan at the next tribal council.  This is especially true now that the merge is not far off, and it is relatively more important to vote for the strong than for the weak.  Second, the viewing audience has been led to believe that there was a solid and open split between the Chauy Gals and the Chuay Guys, which the editing supported to a significant extent.  What we actually heard from the contestants is that:

What does all this tell us?  At first glance it looks like a complete split between the sexes, and that's what the promos and some of the editing gave us, but really there isn't much indication of where Helen stands in the whole thing.  No one is complaining about her anymore.  She isn't fighting with anyone.  Moreover, Brian seems to have stayed pretty clear of the warzone, too.  Given this, there isn't any particular reason Helen should be expected to side with the other women.  Will she be a outsider in a Brian/Clay/Ted alliance?  We have no reason to think she'll have any different status from the rest of them, except possibly for the supposition that Clay will have trouble seeing her that way.  And this kind of bald sexism is less likely than it would have been for, say, Tanya, because Helen doesn't seem to conform to a lot of feminine stereotypes.  As long as there haven't been any arguments we haven't seen between her and the guys, I expect that the next time Chauy Ghan loses immunity (if that happens at all), it will be Jan's turn.  Or possibly Clay's.  Not Helen's.

Now to discuss things from Ghandia's point of view.  Her final words were my favorite among those of any Survivor to date.  In addition to a cool goodbye and a charming laugh, what she said was intriguing--that the Evil Ghandia had outmatched the Good Ghandia--that is, that temptation was too strong for her--and that this was her downfall.  From her final words and Early Show interview, we see that Ghandia was well aware she was overblowing the issue of her sexual encounter with Ted.  She did it on purpose, partially to relieve her anger but partially to try and oust Ted, and along the way to bond with the other women and thus gain the key three-out-of-five-alliance that has historically worked so well on Survivor.  (By that, I mean, being part of a group of five people in a loose alliance, and also part of a three-person subset of that group with a tighter alliance.  In Pulau Tiga it was began as a four-out-of-five alliance that won, but it turned into three-out-of-five when Kelly fell out of favor.  In Australia it was Tina, Colby and Keith, joined by Amber and Jerri.  In Kenya it was Lex, Ethan and Tom, joined by Kim J. and Kelly.  In the Marquesas it was Paschal, Neleh and Kathy, joined by Sean and Vecepia--that one didn't quite work out, but it came very close.)

It might have worked. We don't know what the tie-breaking system is for Season V, but Ghandia obviously thought it was still going to be Season IV's silly random draw, which it may be (I hope not).  If Helen had chosen to vote for Clay, things could very well have worked out her way.  Whether previous votes count would have been irrelevant for that case, since both Ghandia and Clay had one previous vote.  Helen's position might have been better that way.  I'm not sure she made the right decision, but her actual decision certainly wasn't stupid.  Therefore, Ghandia's strategy wasn't entirely futile.

The thing is, even if she succeeded in splitting the tribe between the sexes and also succeeded in ousting Clay, she would have made herself an obvious target for later on in the game.  Imagine if she and Ted had both made it to the merge; Sook Jai would probably be quick to catch on to their mutual dislike and would take advantage, possibly in Ghandia's disfavor.  But even ignoring this possibility, by playing up the conflict she was basically making herself and Ted into the two prime targets.  (I don't think Clay came into it until later.)  She increased her chance of being voted off next into roughly one in two instead of roughly one in six.  All right, more than one in six, but she wasn't in that much danger.  This risk was made in exchange for a chance to get rid of her biggest threat, Ted, and become part of the dominant alliance.

It could have worked.  But I can't help but be reminded of another case from a previous Survivor, similar in a way, yet vastly different.  Early on Survivor IV, Vecepia Towery got to know all her tribemates and tried to figure out how to get past them.  She saw that while Hunter was a major asset to her tribe, he was also a major threat to her chance of winning the game.  Therefore, she rejoiced in his leadership at the first Tribal Council, and dropped other egoboosts for him in an attempt to bring him out more.  Her ploy apparently worked: Hunter became a more confident and outspoken leader, not realizing that that was exactly what his tribemates didn't want.  He was voted out third, and Vecepia became one of the Knucklehead Alliance, exactly what she had planned.  Because she was the least knuckleheaded of the four, she outlasted them all, and eventually won the game.  It wasn't clear while Survivor: Marquesas was going on that Vecepia had actually intended things to work out this way, but she did lay claim to the strategy in post-game interviews.  Thus, Hunter's ejection, which seemed at the time like a horribly stupid move by Maraamu was (in addition) the first stroke of a master strategist.

Ghandia's behavior seems kind of similar to Vecepia's, with one major difference: Vecepia did it quietly.  If her plan to make Hunter extend himself too far had failed, it wouldn't have been her neck for the mistake.  It would have been Gina's if the alliance had formed anyway, and Sarah's if it hadn't.  Ghandia risked too much to make Ted and Clay look like asses, and ended up paying for it.  Her lesson, it seems, is well learned.


The reward challenge was a weighted footrace--each tribe had a 250 pound dummy to carry across two beaches and through a hilly stretch of jungle.  This was a simple, completely physical challenge, which it should be little surprise that Sook Jai won.  It did require teamwork, but not much of it, and it was actually Chauy Gahn and not Sook Jai that failed in that aspect.  The more interesting aspect of the challenge was the artistic component that preceded it: decorating the dummies.  On Sook Jai, this went to illustrate just how extreme the intratribal split is.  If Ken, Erin, Jake, Shii Ann and Penny do something, they do it together.  If they don't take part, none of them do, even if it means Stephanie (and to an extent, Robb) decorate the dummy alone.  Stephanie seems to find this ultracohesive group annoying in the extreme.  Jed did too.  They're right, in a way--it doesn't take five people to gather food, build a shelter, tend a fire, etc.  But by being unnecessarily cohesive like that, these five have cemented their alliance and their excellent place in the game.

It's too bad that they never include actual artistry as part of the challenges themselves (with the half-exception of the SOS challenges).  The problem is, of course, Who Is The Judge?  But that could be overcome in a variety of ways.  It would be fascinating to see how well Survivor tribes manage to mesh and complete artistically when immunity or reward is on the line.

The immunity challenge was yet another famous puzzle: the Tangram.  As Jeff said, this is a challenge of brains to contrast with the episode's earlier challenge of brawn.  More specifically, it's a test of spatial intelligence, but there was a more subtle angle to it.  The interesting twist was that each tribe was only allowed to have two people actually manipulating the shapes at once.  Everyone, however, was allowed to give advice (except Stephanie, who sat out).  The result was that each tribe had to decide whether it was better to let the two designated participants complete the puzzle on their own, or yell advice to them at the risk of confusing them and making what should be easy take forever.

There are some things that committees are good at.  And there are some things that shouldn't be done by committee.  When the task at hand is a difficult puzzle that promises to take a lot of brain power and time, and might be divisible into several different aspects, then teamwork is a good investment.  When the puzzle is a single, simple problem easy enough that anyone reasonably intelligent should be able to do it in a couple of minutes, it's best to leave it to one or two competent minds.  These tangrams fall into the latter category.

Both teams switched between both strategies.  After watching the tapes, however, I have concluded that Sook Jai took the wiser course of leaving the two teammates to do their own work significantly more than Chauy Gahn.  This, plus the fact that they had Shii Ann on their team, led them to victory.  Chauy Gahn was slow to catch on: after some unhelpful counseling from Helen and Clay in the first round, we had this amusing exchange--Ted: "Let them think."  Clay: I am.  Ted: "Let them think!"  Clay: "I am!"  It's no wonder that Sook Jai won.

So here's the question: did they win on purpose?  Not something you usually have to ask in Survivor, but after Sook Jai threw the Tower of Hanoi puzzle last week, you have to wonder.  Last week Erin said, "We have some people we'd like to get rid of."  Jed was one, but mightn't they want to throw another immunity to get rid of another (either Stephanie or Robb)?  But the unique thing about this immunity challenge is that although it featured teamwork, the secret was not to use teamwork.  Sook Jai might have been deliberately holding back (with the exception of Robb, who was motivated to win [and actually seemed to be helpful, for once]) because they feared losing much less than Chauy Gahn, only to find that the relaxed approach was the winning one.  How ironic!

I don't think that's necessarily the case though.  Shii Ann seemed to be harder hit than she expected from getting voted for last week.  No one on Sook Jai liked going to Tribal Council, even though it did let them get rid of Jed.  And the chances are that they'll go to Council again before the merge anyway, so why risk going one time too often?  So, I think their effort to win was probably genuine, although they may have been a little more calm because of their win/win situation.  And being calm when doing puzzles is a definite asset.

By the way, the two tangrams they chose for this challenge were exceptionally easy.  I would have thrown in a third one if I were designing it.  The voting pot, maybe, to keep with the theme.  Want to try your hand at reproduing them?  Check out the tangram applet at Enchanted Minds.

And now, this week's tops and bottoms...


Best Gamer: Ken.  He didn't do anything remarkable, but he doesn't really have to.  He's in a winning position, and when you're in a winning position, you sit tight.  Although for some reason I don't like him much and don't want him to win the game (Brian and Shii Ann are still my favorites), I think his chance right now is better than anyone's.  He was a hustler on the reward challenge and a quiet, capable thinker on the immunity.

2nd Best Gamer: Shii Ann.  Props to her for realizing that one thrown immunity is enough, and that she doesn't want to go back to that temple.  Props for being cool about the whole tribal division thing and just letting Stephanie run her course.  And most of all, props for not only acing her part of the tangram challenge, but offering advice that was actually correct on the other part of it.

2nd Worst Gamer: Ghandia.  She showed this week that she's capable of strategy and coherent planning, but sadly for her, her plan was faulty.  Deliberately dividing her tribe was a bad risk for her she shouldn't have taken, especially when it meant making at least one person so angry that he took it personally outside the context of the game.  It's best for what remains of Chauy Gahn that she's gone now.  Plus, her cruddy performance at the reward challenge didn't help her one whit.

Worst Gamer: Stephanie.  She has useful skills and the motivation to use them, yet she somehow seems to miss that she's being set up in the worst way.  Her teammates are happy to let her do more than her share of work and happy to make her angry for it, because they know that being angry just seals her out of the group all the more.  She needs to drop her wounded attitude, reconcile with her tribemates, stop sitting out so often (as she did in this week's tangram challenge), and most of all, stop sulking by herself all the time, or she's history before the merge.

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