The 40 Most Influential Survivors: Yul Kwon

Yul Kwon

Cook Islands, Winners at War

To celebrate the 40th season of Survivor, we’re counting down the 40 Most Influential Survivors to ever play the game. Because Survivor is a game, a tv show, and a rabid fandom, we’re taking all forms of influence into consideration for this list. Go here to view the criteria we are using to determine what qualifies for the list. Note: this list is presented in chronological order and there will be spoilers for various Survivor seasons.

Yul Kwon is the 18th entry in this series.

Those of you following this project know that players don’t get on this list just for being first. Yul Kwon was not the first. He wasn’t even the second. But when we discuss idol-holders, Yul is the undeniable trailblazer who influenced not only future players, but Production as well.

But to understand how Yul catalyzed idol-centered social gameplay, we have to revisit the aforementioned first and second idol-holders. The first was Gary Hogeboom of Survivor: Guatemala. Gary found his idol and played it at the very next Tribal. The second was Terry Deitz of Survivor: Panama. Terry did try leverage his idol by offering it to Danielle in exchange for her vote, but he ended up hoarding the idol after Danielle initially turned him down. Before Yul, this was the entire extent of idol gameplay.

As we know, Yul turned that on its head. Almost the morning after finding it, Yul revealed the idol to Becky, solidifying an alliance that would run for the entirety of the game. After axing Cao Boi for spouting some dangerous vote-splitting rhetoric, Yul’s idol had little influence on the game until the merge where the Aitu Four were down in numbers on a nine-person tribe. Based on the rules of Season 13, Yul would have had to bequeath (this is the official term we use for handing off advantages, right?) the idol to someone else before Tribal if it were to be played. There would have been a 1-in-4 chance of getting the target right. While the Aitu Four had overcome incredible odds, Yul still wanted something more certain. He wanted an option with more immediate security as well as a way to keep the idol in the game for future use.

Enter Jonathan Penner.

From here, I’m going to quote Emma’s 30 From 30 post. I mean … she already wrote it.

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.

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. …

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.

… 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 … 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.

In the same episode, we see Yul’s velvet glove and iron fist (sounds kinky). As he did with Becky, Yul showed the idol to Sundra and Ozzy to cement their alliance and promise them a tool that would take them to the end. But what Yul did to Penner was tantamount to blackmail. Vote with us or you’re the next to go. But I’ll even let you choose who we vote for. Go get yourself something nice.

With Penner in their pocket for a few votes, the Aitu Four were able to Pagong their competition all the way to the end. But Yul’s dominating use of the idol was what got them there and what got him his win. And so when we talk about influence, we have to talk about what happened in the season immediately following Cook Islands: Production changed the rules. The Hidden Immunity Idol had to be played after the votes were cast but before the votes were read. Yul became one of the few players who influenced Production to implement institutional changes. He didn’t even do it for a bummer reason, like “almost dying” or “non-consensual groping.” Just his pure greatness. The Super Idol would return in future seasons–see CagayanKoah Rong, and Heroes vs. Healers vs. Hustlers–but always with caveats that limited its power.

Though of course, Yul’s influence extends beyond that. Any time that a hidden immunity idol influences the game outside of being played at Tribal Council, that can be drawn back to Yul. The countless times that an idol-finder immediately shows it to their closest ally and promises Final Two? Thanks to Yul. Todd sharing his idol clues with Amanda and tipping James off to the Zhan Hu idol? Thanks to Yul. Stephen and Taj forming the Jalapao alliance with J.T.? Thanks to Yul. Kenny, Crystal, Matty, and Sugar aligning? Thanks to Yul. Hell, even The Sugar Shack can be traced back to Yul and Aitu, who sent Candice to Exile three times for personal and strategic reasons. Tony’s use of the idol to exert leverage on his tribemates is pretty clearly a result of Tony’s natural tendencies, but it also emulates Yul’s style.

And while this connection is a little more tenuous, I would argue that Yul is responsible for a new type of idol: the Sundown Idol. Splitting an idol into parts  and forcing players to share it with an ally had its origin in Heroes vs. Healers vs. Hustlers (remember Lauren and Dr. Mike? Good times.) but made a reappearance in Edge of Extinction when Devens and Chris Underwood re-entered the game. All of the idols hidden at camp in Winners At War follow suit. Yul’s idol was not of this type, but the rules for these idols are clearly meant to recreate what Yul did with his.

When decisions today are still based on your game 27 seasons ago? That’s influence, baby.

I was tempted to include a pic of Chris Underwood, but that seemed disrespectful.

Who else made the list?

You can see each entry on the list by clicking this link.