30 from 30: #30 – Tony Vlachos Wins Survivor

The Moment:

A new era in Survivor is kicked off when the ultra-aggressive Tony Vlachos is named winner of Survivor: Cagayan.

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:

You shouldn’t be able to play like Tony Vlachos and win Survivor. We had 27 seasons worth of evidence that said aggressive gameplay like Tony’s, with the constant lying, paranoia, flipping, and blindsides, is not what wins Survivor. You need to be calm. You need to be social. It’s a game of small interactions, not big moves, despite what Probst may tell you. If you spend the whole game screwing people over, you will be punished by the jury. This is a game where you can fly under the radar to win, where you need to stay “cool, calm, and collective”, a game that you can’t manhandle into victory.

Or at least it was, until Tony Vlachos came along and took a sledgehammer to that entire way of thinking.

tony-vlachos-spy-shack
Because he’s a construction worker, get it?

It turns out you can play an ultra-aggressive style and win Survivor, as long as you’re willing to forgo sleep to constantly run scenarios in your mind at night. And be a hard worker around camp to help deflect the bad feelings that arise from your style of play and provide opportunities to sneak off into the woods. And burst out into full sprints to find time to look for idols. And look for every opportunity to squeeze out an advantage, no matter how remote. Easy, huh?

Tony was able to play this way and win in part because the evolution of Survivor that occurred over the previous 27 seasons (and 29 or so series-altering moments). Fans of the show (of which Cagayan had a large supply) had been brought up to believe a player like Tony couldn’t actually win. In Survivor casting, there were “characters” and there were “players”, and you needed only be around Tony for a few minutes to realize that he was a capital C “Character”. So, sure, you let him run around and do crazy stuff, drawing all the attention and becoming the target while you sit back and wait for the opportune time to strike. If you’re going to fly under the radar, then you need someone to draw enemy fire, right?

Survivor is a marathon, not a sprint. And like all distance races, a seasoned competitor will let a rabbit go out front and push the pace to tire out less disciplined racers. You could even see Tony as the show’s attempt to employ a pacemaker to liven up the early parts of the season. But sometimes rabbits are actually front-runners, and before you know it, they’re crossing the finish line while you missed your opportunity to strike. And that’s what Tony Vlachos did. He exploited the passive nature that had become Survivor mantra, leading all those people who thought him their shield staring dumbfounded once Jeff snuffed their torch.

Wait, what?
Wait, what?

By constantly staying on offence, Tony upset the rhythms of the game to his favour. (Editor’s note: Oh, Canada.) And goddamn if it wasn’t fun to watch. Tony became not only one of the great casting finds in the history of the show, but also a master strategist, always looking for an edge. Survivor has often had a problem with the fact that often the most interesting television was counterproductive to the objective of winning. Sure, it’s exciting to see Russell Hantz laying waste to his competitors, or even Malcolm Freberg making showy Tribal Council moves week after week, but history had shown that the more successful strategy is to make subtle, safe moves that guide you to the end.

There was nothing safe about Tony Vlachos’ game. Everyone who spoke to him knew he was up to something. He could tell lies from outside the game about his profession, or blindside key allies, or hunt for hidden idols, and not fool anyone while still kind of fooling everyone. Because they didn’t believe him a real threat until it was too late. Because modern juries no longer punished aggressive gameplay as long as it wasn’t personal. Tony Vlachos was subverting tropes to his advantage, while providing a road map for future Survivors on how to take control of the game in the showiest way possible.

There's a metaphor here somewhere...
There’s a metaphor here somewhere…

The Impact:

So why is Tony winning the “Moment”, rather than one of his iconic moves like blindsiding LJ, or building spy shacks, or using Spencer and Tasha as his heat-deflecting meat shields? Because few took any of his moves seriously until after they proved successful. Throughout Cagayan, his fellow players would bemusedly discuss this crazy, hyperactive schemer in their midst as a problem to deal with later, if at all (since at least one of them was pretty sure he’d be punished in front of a jury for his actions. Whoops).

Pictured: someone without a passing familiarity with Survivor.
How’d that go, Woo?

Even worse than the reaction of Tony’s victims was the reactions of the Survivor fan community as it was happening. Everyone was so sure of the previous paradigm of how to play the game that every one of Tony’s moves was treated by the majority of observers with either significant skepticism or outright scorn. This spazzy big guy with a funny accent was going to get burned, they thought, like all the other Characters before him.

People were so loathe to give Tony the credit he deserved that all the “mastermind” and “strategist” credit was instead handed to a player who spectacularly failed at everything he tried in the game (besides winning immunity a few times). Because we’d seen Spencers win before (like Cochran, a.k.a. the Spencer who doesn’t suck). We’d never seen a Tony win. Then we did. And would again. And will again.

(And this is the part where I mention that at least one semi-prominent Survivor podcast was on the “Tony is changing Survivor” bandwagon pretty early. I mean, not “after the premiere of the season” early, but still. They came around pretty early in the process and had a pretty good time saying “I told you so” when it was over. And will continue to do so).

It me.
It me.

Because once you see someone go out there and dominate the game AND win as a result? Why wouldn’t you try and play like that? As long as you don’t think about how freaking hard it must’ve been for Tony to juggle all those balls for 39 days, it sure does look a lot more fun than just quietly managing egos and minimizing risk. Tony Vlachos was the rampant id of every Survivor fan sitting on the couch desperately wishing that the players on the screen would do something, ANYTHING for our amusement.

You could almost say that we "needed this".
You could almost say that we “needed this”.

So, sure, Natalie Anderson flies under the radar for a while in San Juan del Sur. But when it’s winning time? She does it in the most public fashion possible, blindsiding one member of her alliance at Tribal Council and then cutting her closest ally down in front of the jury so there was no doubt as to who was playing the hardest. (And who did Natalie list as the contestant she was most like? Tony Vlachos).

Mike Holloway? He was basically the friendly, challenge-winning version of Tony Vlachos: throwing challenges pre-merge to target his biggest personal threat early (interestingly, that was a move even Tony wasn’t willing to make, as he wasn’t in on the “throw a challenge to get rid of Cliff Robinson plan”), aggressively hunting for idols, spying on contestants from hidden locations (in his case, tree tops rather than bushes), holding out an entire auction for an advantage, being disruptive with idols at Tribal Council.

It’s much too soon to tell, but I have a theory that thanks to Tony the strategy of flying under the radar is, if not completely dead, at least entering a dormant phase in Survivor. If you lay back and wait for the action to come to you, then players like Tony, like Natalie, like Mike are going to snatch it in front of you. Juries aren’t going to reward someone who didn’t “make any enemies” along the way: they want to know what you did to earn their votes (just ask Woo, or Jaclyn, or Carolyn how that went). They watched Tony play, and more importantly, they watched Tony win. And when they’re sitting on that jury box, they want to be entertained too.

But it’s not too soon to tell that we are in a post-Tony Vlachos era of Survivor. Game play is more aggressive and will only continue along that path until the next corrective action is discovered. Not everyone will win trying to play like Tony, and in fact more people will probably lose as a result, but they will try. Because you no longer have to decide if you’re a “character” or a “player”. You can be both. And you can win.

What Else Made the List?

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

Andy
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Andy

Co-host of the Purple Rock Survivor Podcast and the Canadian of the group, Andy has been watching Survivor continuously since the very beginning and likes to treat that as some kind of virtue to lord over others.

Favourite seasons: Heroes vs Villains, Cook Islands, Palau, The Amazon, Cagayan
Favourite players: Boston Rob, Kim Spradlin, Tony Vlachos, Cirie Fields, Yul Kwon, Rob Cesternino
Andy
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  • Kemper Boyd

    To me part of Tony’s genius was that he viciously cut anyone who was his ally and could have taken any credit for any big moves. He got to the final 3 with a guy who had done NOTHING and the only person in game who played more wildly and was strongly disliked in Kass. In the end Woo won Tony the game by being a full blown moron but Tony worked on him to make sure he made the worst move for his game by pushing the idea of “integrity” and “honour”.

    • andythesaint

      Tony convincing Woo that it was in his best interest to take him to the end was Tony’s best move. It just gets overshadowed by the fact that it was also perhaps the dumbest move in Survivor history.

      • Kemper Boyd

        It’s that true joy of Survivor, that making someone do something can be a move unto itself! I suppose it’s just like Erik’s move to give up his necklace is SO DUMB that people don’t rate how good it was that Cirie thought of it and Natalie pulled it off!

      • sharculese

        In your piece on Colby picking Tina you kind of made it sound like it was just a case of Woo being Woo, and I had to pause for a second wondering, “Is Andy, of all people, not giving Tony enough credit?”

        • andythesaint

          It’s just because of the subject matter, which was someone bringing a threat to beat the to the end. In the end, it shouldn’t have mattered what Tony did, a player better than Woo wouldn’t have fallen for it.

          So credit to Tony, and blame to Woo.

  • Scarlett3639

    I think Tony’s and Mike’s wins show that to play that boldly and aggressively you need to really know the game. They were both students of the game, both knew that they needed to be able to be flexible and use whatever and whoever they could, whenever they could use them. I think that if a recruit, who was only shown those seasons and hadn’t watched any others, tried to play like that they’d go down in flames.

    • andythesaint

      I’m sure some will try to play like Tony. And go down in flames. And it will be glorious.

      • Purplerockmatt

        Is Drew Christy a recruit who tried to play like Tony?

    • Mechanical Shark

      Exactly. Tony and Mike both loved the game so much, and it showed. And they loved it in a real way, not the superficial way Max loves it, for example (EAT IT, MAX). They understood the social element and the trust element, and they also understood what would work and what wouldn’t. both read their fellow players well. I feel like Tony felt especially comfortable making giant moves because the rest of the cast had more “wait and see” strategies running, and really weren’t prepared for him.

      • Kemper Boyd

        Mike made so many mistakes that would have killed a player unable to go on that immunity run though and was completely unable to recover strategically.

        • andythesaint

          While I agree that Mike made one (usually) fatal move (the auction thing that alienated Dan), I also feel like he was always going to be a target anyway. Which is a lesson from Tony: here are some players that will never be able to hide, so if that’s you, then you might as well get out in front, stay aggressive, and worry less about making mistakes that could hurt you when your very existence already does.

          One of the reasons a player like Mike can go on an extended immunity run is that he tries harder to win them in the middle portion. Other players probably didn’t, because they felt safe and figured that there would be time to get rid of him later.

          • Kemper Boyd

            Excellent point. Obviously losing his biggest ally to an immunity idol dented his ability to play any other way.

      • Purple Rock Emma

        How does one superficially love a TV show, apart from perhaps loving it for the attractive people on it?

  • gouis

    Tony is a gift from the gods, and probably my favorite player of all time. Without Tony the recent stretch of seasons wouldn’t be nearly as well regarded. S25+S27 would probably just be viewed as the outliers in the post HvV garbage seasons, and second chance might be thought of as Survivor’s last gasp. Thanks to Tony Survivor feels as if it’ll never end. He is a saint.