How to win at “Survivor”

The Darwinian undercurrents of "Survivor" are plain, but the real winner will be the castaway who understands the show's endgame.

Topics: Survivor, CBS, Television,

With all the hullabaloo about CBS’s “Survivor,” few have noted what could turn out to be the show’s most radical feature — a game of chess, with human pieces.

If you haven’t been following the show, the second episode of which aired Wednesday, here’s what it’s about and what has happened thus far: The producers have put 16 people on an island in the South China Sea. Two eight-person teams have to forage for themselves, build toilets and shelter, eat rats and fish for food and try to get along. The catch is that every few days, one of the groups has to vote to oust a member. The numbers dwindle inexorably; tensions rise.

Why would anyone go through this? The last person on the island gets $1 million.

Darwin is of course the 17th castaway; while personality conflicts are rife, coolly assessed survival considerations immediately kicked in. At the end of the first show, the members of one camp almost without exception zeroed in on the group’s eldest members: a 62-year-old cancer survivor, Sonja, who was booted, and Rudy, a 72-year-old former Navy SEAL. (His past didn’t seem to impress his fellow castaways: “He didn’t even know how to start a fire,” one scoffed as she voted against him.) The second show saw the oldest member of the other team, a martinet in his 60s named BB, get the hook. His only competition was Ramona, a younger woman who has spent most of her time on the island vomiting.

The old and the sick will go first, and then, no doubt, the fat and the dumb. But sooner or later Darwin will leave the island as well. At that point, the castaways will appreciate that the one who will wind up a millionaire will be he or she who fully apprehends the subtleties of the show’s devious final act. The ending should be compelling; with little else to do on a remote island, the castaways will have plenty of time to figure out the winning strategy.

With but two people left, the show would lapse into a perpetual tie vote. So the producers came up with a solution: Once the island population hits two, the seven most recent rejects will return to vote on the eventual winner.

Here’s the strategy: For the first half of your stay, chip in, do the dirty work, make friends and try to keep your profile as low as possible. Ingratiate yourself — in as attractive a way as possible — with whomever you can. Make your vote count: Gather information, get a sense of who’s up and who’s down. Use your vote to ease off the island those who fit into one of two categories: those who you think don’t like you and anyone who seems more likable than you. At the same time, try to identify a useful but dislikable person who you suspect may be your main competition in the second half of the stay and defend that person whenever you can.

When the total gets down to nine, switch strategies. There will be two of you left, and the other seven will decide who gets the million. You need four votes. For reasons that will become clear, the last three are not going to vote for you in the end. Let the first four rejects of the second half of the ordeal know you’re voting to boot others. Then vote to boot them.

The last four castaways are the pawns in the true endgame. You need to be left with the most repellent person of the last nine, the castaway with whom you’ve been closest and the castaway with whom you’ve been second closest. (The more they like you, the less likely they’ll be to conspire against you.) Vote to eliminate the last of these first; then, in the penultimate vote, conspire with the repellent person to eliminate your friend.

You’re then left with a dislikable person; with luck, this will be all you need to survive the final vote. It’s possible that even your (possibly former) friend won’t be able to bring himself or herself to vote against you.

The truly devious castaway might even volunteer to give him or her a cut in exchange for not calling attention to your heartless betrayal as the judges make their final, million-dollar decision. Once you’re back on terra firma, you can decide whether to honor a deal made under those circumstances.

Bill Wyman is the former arts editor of Salon and National Public Radio.

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