Survivor V: The Gamer's Perspective

By Thorin Tatge

Week 6

Even though somebody leaves in every episode of Survivor, tonight's felt like a soap opera farewell episode for a beloved cast member.  It was all about Robb, from start to finish.  (Even the bit about the dead baby bat, you ask?  Symbolism, I say.  Symbolism.)  Robb showed a lot of sides to his personality in this episode, including one or two worth seeing.  It was fine episode and a credit to Robb, overall.  Unfortunately, it started with Robb making a fool of himself in a ridiculous squabble with Ken, and since the squabble was at least somewhat strategy-related, it's what I have to tackle.  That's right, where 99% of the viewing audience watches a scene and takes away the message "Robb is angry," I actually have to watch the scene four times and listen to the dialogue so I can figure out what in Thailand they're talking about.

Amazingly enough, it appears that Robb actually had a coherent argument underneath all his blather.  Some of it even seems justified.  But you wouldn't think it to recall his opening salvo against Ken:

"Now I don't trust anybody, and Penny's telling me one thing.  So--I'm not playing any ******* games here, bro.  And I told you I've been straight up with you.  So obviously... I don't know.  I don't know when you guys are talking, or... I don't even, I don't even care.  To be honest with you, I don't care."  So why exactly are you talking, Ken should have asked.

And to the camera: "I was questioning Ken's trust and Ken's loyalty--I didn't know if he was trying to mix everything up, or--I don't know what he was trying to acheive.  So... I confronted him on it."  Yes, always a good idea to confront people on things you don't know or care about.

No, but really.  What it seems Robb was concerned about was the fact that before Stephanie was voted out, Ken had told him that Penny would be voting for either Robb or Stephanie, but when Robb asked Penny about it afterwards, she said it was Steph all the way and she had not even considered voting for Robb.  Now, a logical mind would be quick to point out that there is no inconsistency here.  Penny did intend to vote for Robb or Stephanie: she voted for Stephanie.  Penny was probably not lying to Robb and neither was Ken.  The problem lies is why Ken even suggested Penny might have been thinking of voting for Robb if she really wasn't.  The answer lies in the obvious fact: Ken doesn't know everything.  How could he have been expected to know who Stephanie was voting for?  Robb was clearly treating Ken like the older brother he claimed to be later in the episode, badgering him for news on the social scene and hating him when he failed to come through completely.  I'm guessing this is the misunderstanding: When Ken said Penny was thinking of either Robb or Stephanie, Robb assumed Ken had a direct reason for reporting each of these possibilities; i.e. that Penny had expressed thoughts about voting for each of Robb and Stephanie in Ken's presence.  But in fact, Ken knows that he, Penny, Shii Ann, Jake and Erin have had a five-person alliance since the beginning of the game, and all he was really saying is that he knew of no reason Penny would stray from the alliance.  All Ken knew was that there were four people Penny definitely wasn't going to vote for, not who she was* thinking of voting for.  However, Ken didn't want to put it in those terms because he didn't want to tell Robb about the alliance.  So they had a minor misunderstanding which Robb decided to make into a big deal.

Why?  Well, suppose Ken was lying.  "Trying to mix things up."  Could there be any possible reason for Ken to make this particular lie?  Im fact, yes, one does come to mind.  From Robb's point of view, maybe Ken was trying to pit Robb and Penny against each other.  This would make sense if the true alliance did not include Penny and knew that they had to keep the others fragmented.  What if Ken, Jake and Shii Ann had forged a secret alliance?  Then they'd need to keep Shii Ann from being voted out by causing turmoil among the others.  Thus, Robb went to Penny to smooth things over and see how they lay, and he found grounds to fuel his suspicions.  The problem is, that scenario is simply not consistent with the votes we've seen at Tribal Council.  What we've seen at all three Sook Jai Tribal Councils has been absolutely straightforward: a core group of five people votes for one person who isn't helping, and everyone else votes for Shii Ann.  So it's clear that Robb was filled with suspicions that weren't true.  But at least there's some logic to his anxiety.

It soon became clear, though, that Robb's real beef with Ken was something else entirely, albeit also an issue of trust.  "Give me a straight answer on this," he said.  "The first vote--it was between me and Jed, right?"  When Ken emphatically confirmed this fact, Robb accused him of withholding information: "You told me if you heard anything, you were going to say it to me."  Interesting!  So in other words, Robb was relying on Ken for his gossip even back then.  If there was talk of voting for Robb, which there clearly was, Ken was going to tell Robb about it--which he clearly didn't.  I don't believe this agreement was shown to the viewers.  Ken doesn't deny it; rather, he says "That was a week and a half ago--what the hell are you bringing that up now for?"  Robb quite fairly points out that trust is instilled early.  Bro.  But Ken changes the subject with his "I just think you've got some set of balls" remark.  They both seem to agree that Ken failed to warn Robb about the animosity toward him.  But Ken says "Then you should have addressed it back then."  And Robb replies, somewhat cryptically, "That's the whole basis of my argument--that you're not being truthful."  I think that what Robb meant is this: since he wasn't told about the possibility of his being voted off instead of Jed, he had no way of knowing about Ken's selective withholding of information until later.  He's right--it makes no sense to say "You should have confronted me about being dishonest before you knew I was being dishonest with you."  So Robb actually had the last word in this argument.

However, I have to express my opinion that he was a bit unreasonable.  First, could he really expect Ken to tell Robb they were thinking of voting for him when Ken was one of the people doing the plotting?  At the very least, it might have fallen to a low spot on the policeman's agenda.  And second, what sense would it make for Ken to make Robb feel more secure in one case by hiding a plot against him, and less secure in another by making up one that wasn't there?  No wonder Robb was confused.  Ken was not being dishonest: he just didn't care about informing Robb of every detail.

So, now that that mess is parsed out, I have to say that I was happy to see the reconciliation scene between Robb and Ken on their hike following the feast.  They really seemed to hammer out what their relationship was.  Robb finally came to appreciate Ken's help, and Ken came to see that he and Robb are not that different.  But why didn't they at least try to catch some bats to eat?

In Lex van den Burghe's weekly column, he expressed disapproval of a whole series of decisions made by both tribes (Lex appears to be envious of the easier conditions this season), including both the fact that Ted and Clay didn't want to swim for water on the day of the fish sorting challenge, and the fact that they did* want to swim out and look for the boat on the day of the ball catching challenge.  What makes one different from the other?  In my opinion, two things.  1. It takes two people to get water and that's how many they sent.  Contrawise, it takes one swimmer to look for a boat and they sent three, two of whom were struggling the whole way.  Bad idea.  2. This close to the merge, Chauy Gahn wasn't going to make many more water runs.  After the merge they won't need the boat anymore.  So there wasn't much point in looking.

I agree with Lex on that one.  I don't agree on one of his other complaints, that Sook Jai should have saved its chickens for later in the game or at least until after their bananas ran out.  The bananas are not going to go bad.  Not when most of them are not yet ripe and not at the rate they're going through them.  Moreover, it makes sense that Sook Jai should want to eat two or three of its chickens before the merge.  After the merge, the members of Sook Jai will have to share and will each only get half as much chicken!  They didn't do this in Africa, presumably, because food was scarcer and they couldn't afford such acts of selfish indulgence.  Well, in Thailand they can; suck it up, Lex.

One last thing before we talk challenges: the secret alliance between Ted and Brian.  We saw them discussing this last week, but only this week did we realize that they are not including Clay and are even keeping their two person alliance a secret from him.  Why?  Is this childish or what?  What do they have to lose by including him?  Well, I've come to the conclusion that their caution is justified.  Ted and Brian have their own wavelength, so to speak, a lingo they understand.  I take this to mean that they have similar ideas on the strategy of the game, meaning that they have discussed it together often.  This suggests to me that they have a whole game plan (Ted even used this term) in which the two of them become the final two by being at the center of a whole series of sub-contained alliances.  Chauy Gahn hopes to topple Sook Jai after the merge and become the majority.  Thus the importance in sticking together Ted mentioned.  From there, the current voting block of Ted, Helen, Clay and Brian votes out Jan.  Then the three Chauy Guys who spend so much time together take out Helen.  Then Ted and Brian take out Clay at the end.  It's important that Clay not find out that he stands third in the overall scheme, or he may try to counter this alliance, perhaps by making one of his own with Helen.  So I don't blame Ted and Brian for their paranoia.  After all, Ethan was paranoid, right?


On to the reward challenge!  Jeff said that the challenge was based on native Thai games, and unfortunately I don't happen to know what games those are.  The most popular Thai sport involving a ball is Takraw, which can resemble either volleyball or basketball but in which players may not hit the ball with their arms.  Clearly this is something different.  The American game which the challenge most resembled was the old playground staple 500, in which one player throws a ball and others complete to catch it for a named score.  While the Survivor version didn't give the launchers the choice of how much each catch was worth, it did give them the choice of whom to launch towards.  This, combined with the fact that the players were paired up and the single time out for each side, made the challenge interesting and strategic.  I approve.  I also found the challenge highly entertaining because it involved a comeback and a countermove, the time-outs actually seemed to be useful, and it highlighted Robb, no doubt giving Sook Jai second thoughts about voting him out.  (Or not, given that the merge is nigh.)

So here's how the players were arranged.  Shii Ann sat out.  Penny and Helen were the launchers.  Robb and Brian were paired together, and were the closest pair to the launchers.  Then there were Ken and Ted, Jake and Clay, and finally Erin and Jan.  Was it wise of Sook Jai to choose Penny as their launcher?  Absolutely!  Her lack of raw strength was not much of a detriment, especially since Robb, the tribe's best catcher, played the forward position that Penny could easily shoot to.  Furthermore, Penny got into the role and contributed to the team's strategy.  What about Helen--was she a good choice?  Possibly.  She was ready to take orders, which was probably a good thing, although as she admits, she did lose her temper a little.  She was plenty strong enough to shoot long if she had to--maybe too strong, since some of the shots apparently went long.  The question is whether she would have been good at catching the ball.  My intuition is that yes, she would have been--possibly better than Clay.  Her keen eyes and firm hands would have been a definite plus for Chauy Gahn in the field.

So how did the play go?  Rather memorably.  Robb scored the first four points for Sook Jai, largely because Penny was shooting right to him.  It makes strategic sense to shoot the ball the shortest distance possible because that will make it easier to aim and catch.  Therefore, you want your best catcher to be closest to the slingshot.  Both teams seemed to understand this, but Chauy Gahn erred in putting Brian in that spot: he just wasn't quite good enough to keep up with the quick, competitive Robb.  After Robb had scored four points, Chuay Gahn wisely called a timeout and switched Ted to the spot next to Robb.  They had decided that since no one on the team was capable of scoring in front position with Robb there, they might as well shift their focus to blocking--and Ted, a former football star, was the best blocker they had.  Because there are two balls in play at once, it is possible in this game to utilize such an approach, choosing offense at one site and defense at the other.  It really was a well-designed game.

So, Chuay Ghan narrowed the gap from 1-4 to 4-4.  Sook Jai, realizing that the tide had turned, called their own timeout.  That's when Penny decided to call her shot to the middle, where all four Sook Jai players could run for it.  Since they only needed one point, that seems like a reasonable tactic, and it worked: Ken netted the final point they needed for the feast reward.  But let's not overlook an even more interesting strategy that was coming together in the Chuay Gahn huddle.  Very briefly, we heard Helen agreeing to launch the ball in a simple pattern of destinations: short, long, short, long.  Amazing how quickly this game took on characteristics of football.  It makes more sense to vary their launches than to always shoot them in the same place because the other team won't know where to expect them.  It's just too bad they didn't try this strategy earlier in the game.  In fact, it's too bad Chuay Gahn waited so long to call a timeout--if they'd switched Ted and Brian earlier in the game, they might have ended up winning.

And then we have the immunity challenge.  In my essay for Episode 3, I said it was almost painful to watch the castaways struggle with a puzzle as well known as the Tower of Hanoi.  Switch the "almost" for an "utterly" and you have my reaction to this week's game of "Thai 21."  This game is more commonly known as Nim, and the form they used on Survivor is the very simplest form of this ancient and multivariate game.  The reason it was painful to watch is that it's so easy--the winning strategy can be described in a single sentence.  In this case, that sentence is: "Always leave a multiple of four flags."  Follow this rule, and you win, period.  After Sook Jai won the coin toss and correctly chose to go first, they should have taken just one flag.  From then on, whenever Chuay Gahn took one, they would take three; when Chuay Ghan took two, they would take two; when Chuay Gahn took three, they would take one.  This way they would always leave a multiple of four, and since zero is a multiple of four, they would necessarily end up taking the last flag.  I was quite surprised that Shii Ann, at least, didn't grasp this.  If just one person on the tribe winning the coin toss had been familiar with the game, that tribe would have won, there being nothing the other tribe could have done about it.  For that reason, this was a very poor choice of immunity challenge.

In actuality, it was clear that not one of the ten participating contestants either knew or was able to figure out the winning strategy.  The flag count went from 21 to 19 to 17 to 15 to 14 to 13 to 12 to 11 to 9 to 6 to 4 to 1 to 0.  The first five moves were all incorrect.  Now, in fairness, the flip side of this sort of game, a game in the Nim family, the converse to the fact that if you know the winning strategy you always win, is the fact that if you -don't- know the winning strategy there's absolutely nothing you can do.  There is no such thing as a somewhat good move in Nim.  There are no improvements of position, no tactics, and no good-looking moves.  There ae only good moves and bad moves; winning moves and losing moves.  So given that no one knew how to win, both tribes were just shooting in the dark.  This is the second reason that this was a very poor choice of immunity challenge.

Chuay Gahn won, and Penny leaned over to tell Clay, "Well played."  But really, it wasn't well played until their very penultimate move.  Chuay Gahn won mainly because of luck--because it just happened that the game was reduced to a manageably analyzable size on their turn.  Perhaps both teams deserve credit for doing the only thing they could do short of completely random moves: taking small numbers of flags in the sole hope that the game won't become trivial for their opponents to solve.  For a while, each side was only taking one flag, no doubt wanting to forstall the awkward conclusion of the game where they would inevitably discover the other team was better than they were.  All of this is why that challenge was painful to watch.

How could they have made it better?  Here's an idea that comes to mind: allow the teams to take up to five flags on each move, but prohibit each team from taking the same number of flags more than once.  This would actually produce a complex game which, while still in theory a forced win for the side that wins the coin toss, would be impractically difficult to analyze in one go and would offer various tactical facets to consider.  There are numerous ways the game could have been made less trivial and more interesting while remaining a Nim variant.  Shame on the challenge manager for banking it all on the contestants' hunger-fueled stupidity.

And on that pleasant note, it's time for the awards.


Best Gamer: Robb.  I never thought it would come to this, but the poor guy deserves it.  Not only was he uncontestable MVP on the ball-catching challenge, he also gets top honors for Thai 21.  Normally sitting a challenge out wins you bad karma in my book, but when the participating contestants are so entirely and completely inept as they were here, he who sits out actually earns credit.  After all, it's vaguely conceivable that Robb might have seen what was going on, and that's more than I can say for the other ten.  The final reason Robb gets Best Gamer this week is that he was a good loser.  Once it became clear that he was the next to go, instead of being the king of sore losers I would have envisioned, Robb made it a point to tell all his fellow players what he'd learned from the game and bow out gracefully.  Now that's downright admirable, bro.

2nd Best Gamer: Ted.  For scoring the second most points on the ball-catching challenge and coordinating his team's strategy, for being the first to say "We need to get it down to four flags" on Thai 21, and for realizing that he and Brian need to keep their two-man alliance a secret from their higher-level alliance partners, Ted bags the second place slot this week.

2nd Worst Gamer: Jan.  For just being utterly useless at everything except getting water and building grave markers.  And those have nothing to do with games, unless feigning insanity is her long-term strategy.

Worst Gamer: Shii Ann.  She sat out the ball-catching challenge entirely.  She led her team to put their trust in her for Thai 21 (she was sitting in the middle and saying "You've got to help me think, which I'd say makes her the leader) and still let them down.  And despite everything she knows about her tribe, she let herself be drawn into a pointless argument about bananas, further solidifying her status as the least liked and least trusted member of her tribe.  It's no wonder the promos suggest she may play the traitor.  I kind of hope for her sake that she does.

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