Quite possibly the greatest competition show to ever exist, Survivor began with the simple premise of people living on an island where they make their own society while voting one another off. Seen as an adventure with money on the line by many of the first contestants, as time passed, they continue to think of new ways to manipulate their way to the final tribal council. As such, the show has relied on finding strategically-minded contestants that keep the audience on their toes, and this show’s casting department is marvelous at what they do. Realizing that is what inspired us to put together this list of the twenty Survivor contestants that were the best at being strategic masterminds.
In order for someone to be up for possible inclusion on this list, he/she first and foremost needs to have been a contestant on the reality competition show Survivor at some point. For the purposes of this list, we strictly looked at people involved with the American iteration of the series so you won’t find those that were cast in versions from other countries. Next, we took a look at how they played the game and how well they handled the strategic portion of it which heavily involves the social element as well as challenges to a much lesser degree. Finally, we looked at their game in the context of where the show was at the time as current seasons are much more complex than earlier ones but that doesn’t mean early contestants were less skilled.
20 Russell Hantz
One of the most controversial figures in the history of Survivor, Russell Hantz delighted in angering his fellow competitors, fans, and even the show’s producers. Accused of providing a fan with spoilers of his seasons that were then leaked to fans that avidly followed the comings and goings of the Survivor world, he denied his involvement but it added to his shocking resume. A ruthless man who has competed three times, so far, his most recent outing was a huge disappointment for him as he was the second person outed in the twenty-second season. However, he ended up being a runner-up in the nineteenth and twentieth seasons which is an incredible achievement, and he will go down in history as one of the best at finding Immunity Idols. While there is a good argument to be made that his style is not conducive to actually winning a season, the fact that he has outwitted and outlasted many Survivor legends makes him worthy of being included on this list.
19 Kelley Wentworth
From one player that has a real flair for finding and playing Immunity Idols to another, this time around, we are looking at Kelley Wentworth who was much more liked during her time on the show. A part of the second Blood vs. Water season, she and her father, Dale, were both taken out of the running fairly early on as she was the fifth person voted out and he was the sixth. Despite that, she beat the odds when fans voted for her to be one of the castaways in the thirty-first season, which was known as Second Chance. Managing to come in fourth overall, she used her ability to track down idols and play them to perfection after keeping them a secret. Targeted several times by people that were in the majority, nobody in that season received more votes against them than she did, and nobody changed their image among fans as much as her.
18 Aubry Bracco
Someone who was featured in one of the most controversial seasons of Survivor to date, Aubry Braco played alongside some real jerks, and many fans were outraged when she didn’t win her season. Losing out to Michele Fitzgerald in the finals of Survivor: Kaôh Rōng, to this day, the actual winner of her season is seen by many as one of the least worthy of the title. That is because it was Aubry who was behind many of the most notable strategic moves on the show week after week. On top of that, she was also able to build a bond with Joe del Campo on the show that seemed so tight that many felt he would sacrifice his game for her. Returning two seasons later for Game Changers, she also managed to have a strong showing that time as she came in fifth out of twenty people.
17 Amanda Kimmel
A three-time competitor on Survivor, Amanda Kimmel was able to prove that her strong gameplay in her debut was far from a fluke. The second runner-up in Survivor: China, she made it to the end with two other people, and while she received fewer votes to win than either of her peers, she had a huge hand in all of them making it. Returning to the show in the very next season, Fans vs. Favorites, this time around, she was the first runner-up and her alliance with Cirie and Parvati absolutely ruled the roost. Not doing as well when she came back for Survivor: Heroes vs. Villains, this time around, her chances were ruined strictly because her former alley, Parvati, knew her well enough to see through her lies. Still, in each of her seasons, Amanda proved her ability to look at the game from a long-term perspective which allowed her to do what she needed to in order to stick around.
16 Brian Heidik
The winner of the fifth season of this show, Survivor: Thailand, a lot of current fans may not have any idea about Brian Heidik and that is because it is likely that he will never return. A misogynistic man that came off as very sleazy during his time on the show, he also appeared in an adult movie which is a controversial thing for the show and was arrested for shooting a puppy. Still, as awful as he may be as a person, there is no doubt that he saw the game in ways nobody before him had. Originating the idea of dragging a very disliked player to the end with you in order to win, he was responsible for Clay Jordan sitting beside him which ensured his win. Referring to his time on the show as a business trip, he came away with the million dollars and seemed to be the puppet master of everyone around him.
15 Yul Kwon
The winner of Survivor: Cook Islands, the thirteenth season of the show, Yul Kwon seemed likely to take home the ultimate prize from early on in the proceedings. Known for his calm demeanor and his calculating manner of seeing the game, he had the uncanny ability to keep his calm and talk strategy with people who’d he’d burned, and vice versa. Treating the game like a business, his emotionless energy ensured that when time came for the final tribal council, he still had enough of his fellow competitors’ respect to receive their votes. However, we couldn’t place him higher on this list as his game was never truly in jeopardy in part because he possessed a hidden immunity idol that he could play after the votes were read. Making voting against him extremely dangerous, it granted Yul with an extraordinary amount of power.
14 Sarah Lacina
One of the people that a lot of fans mocked in the lead up to the thirty-fourth season of this show, it was billed as Game Changers and many understandably felt that Sarah Lacina didn’t deserve to appear. A former competitor in Survivor: Cambodia, the only part of her game that most people remembered was recognizing that Tony Vlachos actually was a cop and being voted out by him. However, when she made her return, she had become a cerebral player who was ready and willing to manipulate the people around her through any means. The Sole Survivor of Game Changers, by the time she sat beside Troyzan and Brad Culpepper in the finals, she had won the respect of her many detractors and more importantly, her fellow survivors.
13 Tony Vlachos
A Survivor with a manic energy, Tony Vlachos competed in and won the twenty-eighth season of the show, and his performance was so amazing that we can ignore how poorly his return went. The second person on this list that possessed a hidden immunity idol that could be played after the votes were read, unlike Yul Kwon, he found himself in peril at many turns. However, a major difference between the two was that Tony’s Idol expired earlier in the game so in the end, he was left to his own devices which included things like lying about the abilities his idols had. Arguably responsible for many of the sticky situations he got was in, no matter how big of a hole he dug, he would figure out an explosive way out of it, which was impressive. On top of that, there are few survivors who have ever worked as hard as he did while on the island as his mind always seemed to be moving which led him to do things like build “spy shacks.” Ultimately, his most impressive feat came when he convinced Woo Hwang to take him to the final tribal council even though it doomed Woo’s chances.
12 Rob Cesternino
One of the best-known minds in the Survivor community, Rob Cesternino has created a whole business around his expertise as he now runs Rob Has a Podcast and a website that both follow the show. Coming to prominence when he competed in the sixth season, Survivor: The Amazon, at that point, the show had begun to feel predictable. Ruled by people that built an alliance early on and stuck with it throughout, Rob came along and changed everything by switching back and forth between groups over and over again. In fact, even all these years later, show host and producer Jeff Probst will often cite him as one of the best players to never win the game. When you are thought in those terms by fans and the people behind the show alike, you know you’ve done something incredible even if your return in Survivor: All-Stars went poorly.
11 Natalie Anderson
No stranger to competing on TV when she made her debut on Survivor, Natalie Anderson and her twin sister had already been on The Amazing Race together when they became castaways on the show. A part of a Blood vs. Water season in which people with bonds outside the game both take part in the show, the duo took a hit early on as Natalie’s sister was the first person eliminated. Never bogged down by having to look out for anyone but herself, especially since her other biggest ally was blindsided, as a result, she was quite aggressive in the way she played the game. Able to make the people who’d burned her think she was on her side, she even used a hidden immunity idol on one of them but all the while was bidding her time. Socially strong and very subtle when needed, she pulled the strings and arranged for blindsides against three of her foes which helped her win the game by a large margin in the final vote.
10 Tyson Apostol
One of the most fascinating players in the history of Survivor in our opinion, Tyson Apostol has played the game three times and at first seemed like a colorful but foolhardy person. Part of the Heroes vs. Villains season, for instance, he made the choice to change his vote in a foolish move that seemed to serve no purpose. Worse than that, however, had he stuck with the plan, it would have resulted in a tie vote but because of his change, his vote was negated by an idol and he and left the game. As a result, at one time, it seemed impossible that he would end up on a list like this one.
When Tyson came back for a third run in a Blood vs. Water season alongside the woman he would go on to marry, everything changed. Angered greatly by his loved one’s early departure, for the first time, he seemed to be taking the game seriously, and he would pull the strings with the help of a pair of allies. Resourceful, controlling, devious, and steely in this performance, he stood strong during a rock draw vote and even had a hand in Ciera Eastin voting out her own mother on his way to winning the season. If that doesn’t overcome two silly early appearances on this show, we don’t know what does.
9 Todd Herzog
Someone that seemed unlikely to win early in his season, despite the fact that fellow castaway Jean-Robert Bellande called Todd Herzog an untrustworthy threat from the beginning, he did just that. Forming an alliance with three other noteworthy players, James Clement, Amanda Kimmel, and Courtney Yates, three out of the four of them made it to the final tribal council in his only season to date. A huge portion of the reason that they found success, he used his social skills to get all of them to do his bidding as well as several people that he wasn’t working with on a regular basis. If that weren’t enough reason to call him one of the best ever, he articulated what he did during the final tribal council so well that many see him as giving the best performance in that venue ever.
8 Denise Stapley
A player we see as incredibly underrated, Denise Stapley isn’t often talked about for how stellar her gameplay was but we think it absolutely should be. The winner of Survivor: Philippines, which was the twenty-fifth season to air, her side lost every immunity challenge prior to the merge. As a result, she attended every single tribal council which put her at great risk but her ability to ingratiate herself to people allowed her to survive each one. On top of that, she made a bond with Malcolm Freberg which helped her make it to the end but had the foresight to cut the much-liked player loose prior to final tribal. Someone with an innate understanding of people, she was able to be malleable enough to her situation to get along with people while also doing enough to earn respect which is a killer combo.
7 Cirie Fields
A four-time Survivor competitor who at first seemed afraid of her new surroundings, Cirie Fields’ run on this show has been stunning. At first noted by many as the “couch potato” that got off the couch and proved that she could bring it, by now, that shouldn’t be a big part of her legacy if you ask us. We feel that is the case because no matter where she started out, the thing that blows us away is how cutthroat she can be at a moment’s notice and how smart has always been. In fact, after she went very far in her second appearance, she was voted out very early on in Heroes vs. Villains because she was feared. On top of that, even though she had proven herself to be a real competitor, the only reason her torch was snuffed in Game Changers was that everyone else had immunity, and they didn’t even hold a vote. Possessing the ability to smile to your face while stabbing you in the back and still have you like her as you walk away, Cirie was built for this game.
6 Richard Hatch
The original bad boy of Survivor, Richard Hatch won the first season of the show in one of the most watched and talked about moments this series has ever brought the world. Very egotistical from the start, in the first episode, he told the audience that he would win the game in a moment that made many scoff. However, as the season progressed and he led the first alliance in the history of the show, he became more hated by viewers each week as his proclamation began to seem likely. Someone who understood the game better than anyone else, he also backed up his claims by opting to bow out of the final immunity challenge, confident whoever won would take him with them. Coming back in All-Stars where it seemed like all former winners had no chance as they were instantly targeted, it tarnished his reputation some but his mental acumen was never in question.
5 Parvati Shallow
So respected that for years on end, players would cite her as the person they most wanted to play like, Parvati Shallow’s performances on this show always impressed. A three-time player whose worst finish was sixth place, she was the first runner-up in Heroes vs. Villains and wound up prevailing in Fans vs. Favorites. Perfectly happy to be hated by fans if it is what is best for her game, during her first season, she was seen as the primary antagonist, and unlike some people in that role, she seemed to revel in it. Proof positive of the fact that she has a killer instinct, in her second season, the alliance that she led alongside Amanda Kimmel and Cirie Fields was referred to as the Black Widow Brigade. Willing and able to use her feminine wiles and whip-smart mind to her great advantage, she saw the game several moves ahead but also could change her mindset with the tides.
4 Jeremy Collins
A two-time player who was never able to get his footing the first time around, just when Jeremy Collins thought he’d found a group to play the game with, he was blindsided and removed from the game. Voted back in for the thirty-first season, otherwise known as Second Chance, this time around, he remained near the top of the game throughout. Able to be aggressive and honest at the same time, he proved how important it can be to make people comfortable in your presence as he was often the person that others fed information to. However, Jeremy held onto his own secrets better than almost anyone to play the game as he never revealed his hidden immunity idols before playing them. On top of that, he kept the fact that his wife Val, who was a former player herself, was expecting a baby a secret until the final tribal council which was very smart.
3 Kim Spradlin
The person that played the best single season game in the history of this show, in our opinion, the only reason Kim Spradlin didn’t take the top spot is two former players stellar work over several seasons. The winner of Survivor: One World, in her season, both tribes lived on the same beach immediately which makes her win all the more impressive as she had to win everyone in the jury over from day one. The leader of an alliance made up entirely of women that took the top five spots in the season, she seemed to have an iron grip on the show and never relinquished it. If that wasn’t enough, she also came out of nowhere to win four of the last five immunity challenges, which makes it look like she wasn’t trying early on as she didn’t want to be seen as too much of a threat.
2 Rob Mariano
One of the only four-time players in the history of Survivor, when Rob Mariano was voted out the first time, there was no telling how big of a deal he’d become. Brought back for All-Stars, in it he and his future wife, Amber Brkich, controlled the game, and while she won, many feel he was the one that did the most including saving her game through his world alone. The eighth person voted out of Heroes vs Villains, in it, he was targeted by a massive group that recognized that he needed to be outed for them to take control. Brought back on more time, for the twenty-second season, that time, he had a stranglehold on the game from the beginning to the end. In fact, he held so much sway over several players that he was able to institute a rule in which they all but stopped speaking to the people he didn’t include in the alliance. Able to control two separate seasons, we think he is amazing at this game.
1 Sandra Diaz-Twine
There is a reason they call her the queen. A three-time Survivor player Sandra Diaz-Twine is the only two-time winner, which is something that seemed nearly impossible to achieve. Able to prevail in both Pearl Islands and Heroes vs Villains, her stance of being willing to send anyone out of the game as long as she stayed allowed her to be very fluid. Seen as useful to power hungry people that felt they could direct her vote, someone like Russell seemed to not realize that she was also building a resume that people were more impressed by than his. On top of all that, she returned fourteen seasons after her last win when she was cast in Game Changers, which is a title she absolutely deserves. The sixth person voted out this time, despite not being able to repeat her previous wins, her ability to convince people to do things was obvious, and she outlasted all other previous winners.