30 from 30: #20 – Yul Kwon’s Perfect Hidden Immunity Idol Play

The Moment:

Down four to five at the merge, Yul Kwon uses his hidden immunity idol to convince Jonathan Penner to flip back to the Aitu Four.

We’re counting down the 30 Moments That Shaped Survivor, events that happened on the show that helped create and evolve the game and the series that we know and love. Go here to view the criteria we are using to determine what qualifies for the list. And since these posts are covering the first thirty seasons of Survivor, there will be spoilers for various Survivor seasons.


Why It Matters:

Survivor: Cook Islands wasn’t the first time the hidden immunity idol was introduced, nor was it the season that the show perfected the idol’s powers. It was, however, the first time it was used to significantly change the outcome of the game.

But let’s go back a little…

On day 19, the Aitutaki and Rarotonga tribes were even at six members each when Jeff announced there was an opportunity to mutiny. Candice took Jeff up on the offer because she missed Parvati and Adam, her fellow young white people. Penner followed suit because he considered Candice to be his most trusted ally. This is an example of how Penner is a great character, but maybe not so much a great player.

That's bollocks and you know it.
That’s bollocks and you know it.

Thus the mythical Aitu Four were born and arguably the main reason we wound up with three seasons of Ozzy. The scrappy underdogs proceeded to beat Rarotonga in all four of the challenges between the mutiny and the merge. Two tribal councils and a questionable double vote-off later, and the seemingly insurmountable eight-four lead enjoyed by Rarotonga had shrunk to five to four. As such, despite their streak of challenge wins, the Aitu Four were still technically the underdogs. They had to figure out a way to flip someone from Rarotonga to their side.

And that’s where Yul, quite possibly the most intelligent person to have ever played the game, comes in. (Editor’s note: You’re fired, Emma. But he’s up there.)

Is there anyone else you think was the most intelligent? Anyone?

Adam thinks the future is bright, because they have the numbers. Nate figures Rarotonga will remain strong because he’s tight with Adam and Parvati and assumes Jonathan and Candice can’t flip because they’ve already betrayed the Aitu Four. Parvati feels that Yul is the biggest threat. Guess which one’s right?

After the merge feast, Yul and Becky head to a secluded area of the beach in order to strategize. Yul has something he needs to run by his ally.

Look at Becky being part of the game.
Look at Becky being part of the game. Acknowledge it!

“I’m trying to think, what’s the danger of them knowing I have the idol? I’m not sure it is a horrible danger, to be honest. They don’t have the numbers to arrange a split vote.”

Becky agrees that Penner is rational above all else, so he is selected as the one to approach. Then comes a scene to delight gamebot strategy nerds everywhere: The Yul-Penner sit down. Look, if one of you has a better name for it, I’m all ears.

When Yul first approaches Jonathan about working together again, Penner says he couldn’t consider it. Ozzy wouldn’t trust him, Yul shouldn’t trust him, there’s just no reason to do it. Unless… unless Yul were to have the idol.

What an interesting idea, Jonathan. Yes, what would happen if I were to have the idol?
What an interesting idea, Jonathan. Yes, what would happen if I were to have the idol?

It all starts as a hypothetical, but Jonathan explains that if Yul were to have the idol, he would have no choice but to go back to the Aitus. Instead of confirming anything right then, Yul pockets that information and begins his move.

First, he tells his remaining allies, Sundra and Ozzy, that he has the idol. This is an underrated part of the plan. If Sundra and Ozzy aren’t in on the plan, they have to assume they’re just sitting ducks. This keeps them from trying to create something of their own. Knowledge of the idol especially keeps Ozzy in line. He was already bonding with Nate and his challenge prowess gives him a non zero chance at lasting past some Raros even in the case of a Pagonging.

The only problem with waiting to tell his allies about the idol is now Yul has to explain why he waited. But of course he thought that through too.

“This could take all four of us all the way. And that’s how I want to play it.”

By making the idol about his alliance, and not him (but while still keeping the idol in his pocket), Yul further solidifies an alliance that was really only formed due to circumstance. But of course he needs the idol to do more than that. It still needs to save them.

Spoiler alert: It did!
Spoiler alert: It did!

After the immunity challenge, while Adam and Parvati discuss how they need to target Yul, he goes to check in on Jonathan fishing. Yul hits Penner with a one-two punch: He shows Penner the idol and he offers him final two. At this point in the game, Penner already can’t win. This is not a terrible deal. But then Yul hits him with the death blow (Why am I making so many boxing metaphors? That’s what I’m doing, right?) and says if Jonathan doesn’t go with the Aitu Four, they’ll all write his name down, Yul will play his idol, and Penner will go home. Of course, if Penner just lies to keep the vote off himself… but hey, as the great Wes Nale once said: “You gotta risk it to get the biscuit.” [Editor’s note: despite what Rocky 4 might have taught us, they don’t actually fight to the death in boxing]

The one extra key to this move is when Yul lets Jonathan choose who to vote off. When targeting someone to flip, it’s always best to make them as comfortable as possible.

Yul proceeded to ride this move to the final three and win the game. And thank god, because we can’t have Survivor: Race Wars end with the ultimate straight white boy winning.

This fucking guy.
This fucking guy.

The Impact:

Because memory is fallible, for a while I mistakenly thought Cook Islands was the first season with the Tyler Perry idol, nee the “God Idol”. It made sense that the producers tried something, quickly realized it was too powerful, and then dialed it back. But no, Yul was actually the second to possess this form of the hidden immunity idol. Challenge beast Terry Dietz just never did anything with his. There were attempts, sure, but not like Yul did it.

Once Yul showed the idol has more power than saving you from one vote, the show had to make adjustments. People can still make a power move a la Kwon, but it is a decidedly riskier game. Trusting the person you’re going to flip is that much harder when you have to play the idol before the votes are read.

However, the idol still continues to have power outside playing it. Though it came to nothing, Brendan and Taj used a combination of Exile Island and hidden immunity idols to build a cross tribal alliance. And when J.T. found Taj/Stephen’s idol, the pair knew it was more valuable to use that idol to bring J.T. into their alliance instead of targeting him for knowing their secret. The Jalapao Three went on to be the most dominant underdog alliance since the Aitu Four.

Plus Erinn.
Plus Erinn.

Even those without the idol can leverage it to build alliances, like when Kenny, Crystal, and Matty found out that Sugar had the idol and chose to bring her into the fold.

Not like she was going to have her own strategy anyway.
Not like she was going to have her own strategy anyway.

Although not revealed on the season, Andrea Boehlke has said that Ashley Underwood and Natalie Tenerelli knew that Boston Rob had the immunity idol, and that was part of the reason they wouldn’t flip with Andrea.

Though many have started to feel the hidden immunity idol places too big of a target on your back, smart players will find that it can buy you more than another three days in the game. You just have to find the right way to use it.

What Else Made the List?

You can view all our 30 from 30 content by clicking here.

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Emma is the token chick of the Purple Rock Podcast. She has watched the show continuously since the second episode and is pretty sure she's never seen the pilot.

Favorite seasons: Heroes vs. Villains, Micronesia, Cambodia, Cook Islands, China, Philippines

Favorite players: Courtney Yates, Parvati Shallow, John Cochran, Cirie Fields, Yul Kwon, Kim Spradlin
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55 thoughts on “30 from 30: #20 – Yul Kwon’s Perfect Hidden Immunity Idol Play

  1. Unless I’m forgetting something, the two types of plays with the idol besides using it to negate votes against you are alliance building and intimidation. With the first big move anyone ever did with an idol, Yul did both.

    1. cook islands really was the season when people started to figure out the idol. We didn’t include it, but Cao-Boi’s dream was the first time a split vote strategy was proposed to deal with the idol (even though it took a while longer to actually be implemented). Yul obviously showed that the idol could be used for more than just giving you an extra three days in the game.

      1. It was the first time the split vote was proposed on air. I guess they were talking about it in Panama too, but it never came up. Basically, I’m guessing as soon as players heard there was this thing in the game that would prevent you from voting out who you wanted, they found the natural counter strategy to that.

        The first time it happened was in Fiji, between Anthony and Sylvia. Given that season was rather famously filled with recruits, I don’t know if we can attribute the move to them having seen Cao Boi propose Plan Voodoo, or if they just came up with it on their own.

        1. One of my favorite sneaky moments in Cook Islands is Yul’s reaction to Cao-boi telling him about the plan he came up with to flush out the idol. From memory (and memory can be faulty), Yul starts off as patient if obviously disinterested Yul, as Cao-Boi introduces it as a dream he had. But then he totally perks up once he hears the plan and immediately starts plotting how to remove Cao-boi. It is a great illustration of why he was a good player, as he immediately identified a threat to his power and position and acted to neutralize it immediately before it might have spread

  2. Some people think that “gamebots” ruin Survivor. Some people also think Yul is the pinnacle of a “gamebot”. So if loving Yul is wrong, I don’t want to be right.

    1. Yul is a gamebot here because he was so so worried about being seen as a spokesman for his entire race that he never allowed himself to say anything remotely controversial or even interesting.

  3. Other Cook Island thoughts:

    Penner sucks at Survivor.
    Becky is underrated and got kind of boned by the editing.
    Adam is perhaps the douchiest Survivors to ever play. Such an entitled white bro.
    Candace sucks and hasn’t really improved on repeat appearances.
    It’s insane that Ozzy almost wins. I think here the Survivor juries are still in a growth phase, and haven’t started to purely reward gameplay yet.
    Yul is sexy.
    This is a great season and haters can suck it.

        1. Yep, I love this site and the people here because there are people here who have look at Survivor through the feminist lens. Honestly as a woman I could cry sometimes the way decent female players get undermined. Becky is a good player who the winner of the season says was involved in every single strategic move he made. She is massively underrated.
          I’m watching Philippines this weekend and all I can think is “Penner is so bad at Survivor”, he is terrible at the social game and not great at the rest of it either.
          Cook Islands is a fucking great season, is it fair to say it’s slightly racist that of the 4 players who got to play again 3 of them were white and all weren’t good in their first showing? Parvati has become one of the bets ever but it took repeat performances. Could we not have got Jenny or Nate back? Jenny got screwed by the Mutiny; I think without it she had some game.

          1. The fact that the only non original Rarotonga member to return is Ozzy is something that is highly frustrating to me. I know that Yul (probably) won’t come back, but there are still some great people of color who would be interesting contestants. Heck, Cao Boi would be interesting to see him get back on so he could be a victim of vote splitting. Doesn’t this show like to talk about this great underdog alliance? Bring someone else back (probably Becky).

          2. Sundra is doing well enough as an actress, Becky got a terrible edit so I doubt they’d come back and it’s been 10 years so Jenny, Rebecca, Nate and others are now 40+.

          3. Yeah, I know. I think Becky would be cool to see on the show again to see if she could actually be edited as the one in charge. In fact, she would have been an interesting option for Second Chances since she is the first finalist to receive zero votes.

          4. When we were doing our season ranking podcasts, I remember talking about the list of returning players from this season- there are four three-time players!- and saying “Hey, seems like most of them have one common attribute…”

          5. The fact Candace has been on 3 times is a testament to Survivor’s inability to cast or feature interesting female players. Probst says it just seems they hit more on interesting men but it’s bullshit, either they aren’t looking for interesting women or they aren’t giving them the edit that highlights them as characters.

          6. One of the most salient points I’ve seen made about the show’s inherent sexism was from Kass’ AMA (at least I think it was from the AMA; I just know the point was from Kass): every producer and camera operator on Survivor is male. The head of casting is a woman, but casting wouldn’t have any input over how women are portrayed on an edited version of the show.

            The show’s voice- including its host’s- is overwhelmingly male, so it’s not that surprising that women aren’t highlighted in the edits. Disappointing, but not surprising.

          7. I hadn’t heard that before. It makes a lot of sense that that is part of the problem. I’m listening to Rob Cesternino’s Evolution of Strategy and the only thing I’m finding really bothersome is the underrating of female winners, because Rob hugely values a challenge competitor above a lot of other styles. He’s got Chris Daughtry who to me played a very similar game to Vecepia Towery as the 4th best and Vee as somewhere in the bottom 5-6. I think a player like Sandra deserves more credit for winning Pearl Islands from a position as one of the worst challenge competitors ever rather than being dismissed because she’s never won an individual immunity.

          8. It’s not challenge competitors that Rob values, it’s people that have control of the game. And Chris definitely had more control of the game than Vecepia throughout.

            That said, I do think it’s a flawed way to look at the game, and does lead to gender imbalance because of the gender dynamics of “control”. The true alpha males won’t stand being led by a women, so a women is not allowed to take that kind of control in the game. Too many times in non-gender split seasons, if a woman shows a hint of independence the beta women and the alpha and beta males all combine to vote her out. The game Rob likes is not the type of game a woman can typically play, unless it’s in a gender split season. The women who win play the type of game they need to win, it just can’t be *that* game.

          9. Rob values what he considers to be ‘control’. He values someone like Tom (as do I) for having control over the game in an outward and aggressive way. But he doesn’t value people who have control over the game in a social way (like Parvarti or Dani). Rob still doesn’t understand the social game after all this time.

          10. No, I think he does. I think he’s gotten to the point where he understands that people who he would have ranked lower on his winner rankings (Natalie W) deserve to and should win even over people who would have been top 5 (Russell). And he’s also beholden to the edit, according to the edit Danni controlled no votes, even though she made it very difficult through her social game to get voted out. He also acknowledges Sandra as a top 3 player even though he doesn’t rank either of her wins very high.

            He just set a criteria early on and is ranking according to that criteria, mostly because that’s the type of Survivor he likes to see played. It’s a bit of a nonsense ranking that I don’t really pay much attention to.

          11. You are right of course a winners ranking is so subjective. Until Kim came along I didn’t think anyone could play a game I rated higher than Yul’s but it’s partially that Cook Islands was my first season and he was so smart about it. The only good thing is that his co-host is often like “I don’t agree with you, but I’m not doing this list, it’s yours”.

          12. I’ve pretty well given up on winner’s rankings. Every winner did something right, even Fabio. Trying to determine which winning game is better then other winning games is pointless, because context matters too much. The best game to play in each scenario is the one that wins you the game, and one game that seems great one season will get you voted out another season.

          13. I suppose the caveat is there is no bad winner, winners won so that makes them superior to the other players they played against. It’s the same argument that tells you Ozzy, Russell and Penner aren’t great players, if they were they’d have won.

          14. For proof, look no further than our post on Boston Rob in Marquesas. He did the exact same thing that season that he did in All-Stars. In All-Stars, that strategy got him to final tribal; in Marquesas, he was gone before the jury.

          15. Yeah, Vee was a reach as Gouis said Danni is a more appropriate comparison really. You are totally right on the kind of game Rob likes being out of the reach of most female winners. Kim and Parvati being the exceptions and I do think Parvati benefited from the men in FvF being pretty dumb strategically (I include Penner who I think is massively over rated as a player), except obviously Yau-Man who she and Cirie were right to vote off. Kim was just so alpha that even the men who considered themselves Alphas were Beta to her.
            He really doesn’t see the value in playing the game you have to play for your abilities and position in the game. It’s a reason I really think that Natalie White is underrated (not a top winner but not the worst for me), Sophie Clark is another hugely underrated winner, but I’m on Cook Islands at the moment so it’ll be a few months at least until I get to South Pacific and see where she ranks on his list. (I am tempted to start listening out of order to my favourite seasons though now).

          16. The bigger issue is how Rob has Chris ranked like 10 spots above Dani. They’re basically the same player!

            It’s the issue of having discussions about anything on the internet, sexism works itself in there. Even well meaning people like Rob C. express pretty sexist opinions, even if they don’t realize.

          17. I think if anything I tend to underrate challenge prowess, because it seems to me that it’s a higher degree of difficulty to stay in a dominant position in an alliance when you can’t guarantee your spot through an immunity win.

            Ranking winners is a fool’s errand, though. The edits tend to gloss over a winner’s flaws and highlight strengths, so it’s too easy to get fooled into thinking someone is in control of the game or that he/she orchestrated some major move. When we interviewed Tony after Cagayan, he admitted that some of the things he was shown as coming up with were actually the plans of others.

          18. It’s also personal preference. If you love a challenge beast then you love Tom Westmann, if you enjoy an underdog then Danni, Yul and Chris will be higher on your list. If you are a bit sexist you might rank the first 5 male winners 1-5 and female winners 6-10 (cough Rob C cough).

          19. Is Kim not in his top 5?! I realize I just said that it’s useless and impossible to rank winners, but I can’t imagine coming up with any ranking metric that doesn’t put Kim among the strongest winners.

          20. That’s just the first 10 season. So at that point it’s Tom, Brian, Hatch, Daughtry, Ethan, Tina, Sandra, Vee, Amber, Jenna. I’ve just finished Cook Islands so I have like 600 hours of podcast to listen to before I get to One World. I assume he like most people will put her top, because she fills all criteria for a winner.

          21. Still don’t see how Ethan can be rated at 5 but that’s just me. I actually assume that Kim will be 2 because Rob C fucking loves Boston Rob, despite the fact Rob needed 4 goes and a cast of imbeciles to finally win.

          22. Wait, so in the first ten he literally has five men in the top five and five ladies in the bottom five?

          23. What a bad look. Like, even if you actually believe that, you should at least swap Tina and Ethan for a half-hearted attempt at optics.

      1. Can you do an article at some point about Survivor’s brand of sexism? The older I get the more I notice the things Jeff does that are obviously sexist. Mainly talking to men at Reunion shows (even when women win), only last naming male contestants, male players returning more than female players (on non-allstar seasons only Stephenie has returned) etc.

        1. I’ll keep that in mind. Unfortunately I’m sure it’ll be relevant at one point during the season.

          1. Especially with some returning players that Jeff loves to an irrational level, like Savage and Spencer. I doubt highly that some of the great women in Cambodia will get the love they deserve.

          2. It’s a running joke at this point that every season we’ll have to discuss sexism on Survivor.

  4. I read in an interview that Penner also thought that Adumb had the Hidden Immunity Idol. Adumb thought that no one had found it because of course he did.

  5. I think you’re (ugh, it hurts me so much to write this) not giving Terry enough credit. Yeah, what he does with the idol isn’t nearly as clever or intricate as what Yul does, and he certainly can’t work anyone the way Yul can, but the idol is probably a big part of why Danielle is willing to flip at 4, and without it she probably just flips back and votes Terry out once Aras wins immunity.

    I’m not saying it definitely changes the outcome of Panama if Terry doesn’t have the idol, but with it I think Cirie survives that vote and, even though she’s not winning that final challenge, you can make arguments for both Aras and Danielle taking her to the end.

    1. It’s more of a results oriented thing here. If Aras hadn’t won immunity and Terry really does give Danielle the idol, then maybe it changes the game. Because Terry had the idol known as the Yul idol, the god idol, or the Tyler Perry idol, he essentially can’t be voted for at final four. Yes, he almost made a deal with Danielle, but Aras’s timely immunity win killed that. Yeah, Danielle probably votes Terry if he doesn’t have the idol. But that’s just a function of him having the idol, like Gary not being voted out when he finds it in Guatemala. Or even Aras winning immunity. Terry finding the idol isn’t anymore influential than him winning a bunch of immunities. It’s not really a move, because Cirie is pretty much the only person Danielle can vote for at that point.

      Yes, Terry could’ve had an influential idol play if things had gone differently. But they didn’t.

      1. Oh no, don’t get me wrong, I don’t think Terry finding the idol is particularly influential, I’m just saying it does something, even if that something is very very little.

      1. Man it takes very little at all to make me go off on how Terry sucks, because he is the worst, but I I’m just saying he crosses the very little bar of having done anything at all with the idol.

  6. It’s really weird going back to watch earlier seasons and not seeing the HII as part of the game. Some people say it’s too heavily relied on, but I think it adds a great element of strategy and just makes for great TV. Some of the best tribal councils are 100% because of HII gameplay. So thanks, Yul, for setting the precedent.

    1. If nothing else, just the threat of someone having it adds to the strategy and suspense. In early seasons, once you had an advantage in numbers at the merge the game was basically yours to lose if you stuck together.

    2. I’d like to see fewer in the game. I mean in HvV the idols got replaced too often. I’d say one on each tribe and one new for the postmerge and when it’s played it’s dead, no reburying it. But I love the HII, without it you don’t get Parvati’s two idol play, Russell taking out Tyson or Mike’s magical run plus Dan’s fall by Carolyn’s hand.

      1. I agree that when it becomes so common you have like 3-4 idols in play at any given moment, the thing gets out of hand and loses some of the fun. It can create flashy moments, and playing two idols is always a big moment (or going out while holding them), but in the end, it takes away from what Survivor is really about.

  7. I think the way Yul played the idol had to be part of the reason the Producers decided to change the idol from the Tyler Perry idol to the one that has been used through most of the game. It is so much better for game play to have one that needs playing before the vote and can end up with players going home with it in their pocket.

    1. It was a work in progress. Gary’s idol was basically just a bonus immunity necklace. It makes sense that it would be their first attempt, since that’s how they understood immunity at the time. After it was in play, they realized that it didn’t really add anything to change the game in a meaningful way, so they came up with the next version. Terry’s never came into play in a meaningful way, so it wasn’t until they saw Yul spin his into blanket immunity that they realized it was too much. The next version is the right form of the idol, after that, it’s about tinkering with idol delivery.

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