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Playing to Win Example: Richard Hatch on Survivor

Survivor was a 13 part television series on CBS in which 16 people were voluntarily marooned a desert island. Every 3 days they’d vote someone off the island until there was only one left…who would win $1 million. I’m sure you’ve heard of this.

I only half-heartedly watched the series during its first run, but I watched it very closely when it was replayed during the Olympics. (I find the Olympics and physical sports not strategically interesting.)  I found Survivor to be a huge, blazing advertisement for Playing to Win. The community on that island so closely mirrored my Street Fighter community that I was shocked. There was one expert player and 15 “scrubs.” Richard Hatch, the winner of Survivor, was the only participant who really even played the game at all. He put it best when he said towards the end, “I arrived on this island at the same time as everyone else. We all saw the sign that said ‘Survivor—outwit—outplay—outlast.’ That’s what I’ve been trying to do since before I even got here, and the other 15 people seemed to think they were on vacation.”

The Game

Let’s take a strategic look at Survivor before we talk about Richard. There is only one reasonable, logical way to hope to win such a game. There are not two ways. There are not three ways. There is ONE way: to form a voting alliance. At first, the 16 players are divided into 2 teams of 8. Every 3 days, the teams face each other in competitions called “immunity challenges.” The losing team must vote a member off. After 6 players were voted off, the teams merged, forming a single 10 person team. At this point, the immunity challenges were individual competitions, not team efforts. The individual who won such a challenge would be immune from being voted off during the next voting period.

Again, the obvious way to win this game is to form a voting alliance. If you have teammates with whom you coordinate your vote, then you have both the guarantee that their votes won’t go towards you, and the power to concentrate your votes on a single opponent. The whims of other players’ votes are sometimes hard to predict, but the more people you have in your alliance, the better you can control who to vote off. By doing this, you control the game. Now, you don’t want too many people (too difficult to manage, and not self serving enough anyway). Yet you don’t want too few (not enough voting power). An optimal number for a game of 16 people might be 4. Once those 4 become the final 4, they should amicably dissolve the alliance and each try to win. This was Rich’s plan.

The Players

Richard Hatch: Survivor winner, tax-paying loser.A four person voting alliance was not something Rich stumbled into; it was his plan all along, starting before he ever set foot on the island. Not a single other player had even considered such a thing. The other players reacted in classic scrub fashion to Rich’s plan, calling it “no fun.” I was just waiting for someone to call it “cheap.” The other players were bound up by their own made-up rules of honor—rules the game has no knowledge of. The game knows nothing but winning and losing. One player said, “It’s no fun to sit around and get picked off one by one by an alliance. If that’s the way the game is going to be, then I don’t want to play.” Good. Get off. Why did you show up in the first place if not to win?

 Jenna's kids will be really proud that her mother lost.One player, Jenna, said that she didn’t want to be part of an alliance because she wanted her young daughters to watch the show and be proud of her mother when they got older. The supposition here is that she is somehow ethically bound to play in a sloppy, non-strategic way. Rich’s response was, “Jenna should make her kids proud by showing that she can WIN. She should be concerned with showing them ‘look kids, mommy has the will to win and this is how you do it.’”

 Rudy's homophobic and a bit of a biggot, but he's old so he's loveable.Rudy was an interesting player. He initially found Rich’s alliance to be somehow dishonorable, but he joined anyway and he gave his word. Above all else, Rudy keeps his word. Three episodes later, he told the camera that he had “turned 180 degrees,” saying that he now believes that the alliance is absolutely necessary and that he’ll stick with it until the end. When Rudy was eventually voted off, his parting words to future Survivor players were, “Forming an alliance is the only way to win this game.” Yet I believe that Rudy was incredibly lucky that his nature (being true to his word) was exactly in line with what happened to be an important quality to have in the game. After all, if one is to be in an alliance, one must be trustworthy. Rudy had no superior grasp of playing competitive games, but at least he was able to see reason when Rich explained the alliance.

 If only Colleen had acted earlier.Another notable player was Colleen. She saw her own defeat coming. She saw the alliance. She saw she wasn’t in it. She saw that the alliance had the power to vote her and every other non-aligned member off. Her conclusion? To form her own alliance. This was exactly the right response, but a case of too little, too late. Rich said, “I find it amusing that people are so naïve as to think they can start playing strategically at this very late stage of the game. It’s far too late to start now.” In fact, Colleen banded the 3 votes together, and might have gotten Kelly’s crucial 4th swing vote, but failed.

 Gervase thought alliances were first.Gervase was another true scrub. He initially renounced alliances saying that he’d never play that way. It’s cheap, you know. Once his fate was sealed and he would clearly lose to the alliance, only then did Colleen change Gervase’s tune. He said, “Well, we got a new strategy, going to try a something new.” He was all excited. He was talking about Colleen’s alliance. He was a scrub. Scrubs often delight in feeling innovative and original when they latch on to better player’s superior tactics when it’s far too late to matter.

Brilliant Strategy

It was the last episode of Survivor, though, that really showed what competitive games were all about. Rich’s forfeit of the last immunity challenge was the most brilliant move played during the 39 day game. With 3 players left, the final immunity challenge was simply to stand up and keep touching a wooden idol. It would go on for hours and hours until two gave up and one was left. The winner would cast the single vote to remove one of the two losing players. The final two players would then stand before a jury of 9 of their previous colleagues. The jury would decide the winner.

Rich was in a tough spot here, with remaining players Rudy and Kelly. He had a deal with Rudy that they would stick together until the very end. They agreed that if either of them won the challenge, they’d vote Kelly off the island and go to the finals together. The problem is that Rich was well aware that he’d lose the grand prize if he went to the panel of 9 judges against Rudy. Rich was seen as slimy and Rudy, though a bigot, was well liked. If Rudy won the immunity challenge, he’d take Rich to the final 2, but Rich would still lose. That’s no good.

If Rich wins the immunity challenge, he’s stuck. He can’t take Rudy with him to the final 2 (since Rudy would win the final popularity vote), but has to take him (they had an agreement). Rich would be forced to break the agreement and vote Rudy off. Unfortunately, that means he’d lose Rudy’s vote (in retaliation) in the finals. In fact, he might even lose more votes since breaking an agreement is a slimy thing to do.

That leaves only one possibility: Kelly must win. If she wins, her gut instinct will be to vote off Rich (she hates him) and go to the finals with Rudy. Unfortunately for her, she’d lose the finals by a landslide to Rudy. Rich’s gamble is that Kelly, scrubby as she is, is not dumb enough to go to the finals against Rudy. And if she votes off Rudy and goes to the finals with Rich (her smartest option) then she’s done Rich’s dirty work for him. Rich is in the final 2 with Kelly (just like he wanted) and he never had to break his agreement with Rudy, so he’ll still have Rudy’s vote in the end. Kelly had already proven her ability to win such immunity challenges, so it was fairly certain she’d beat Rudy if Rich just conceded. Even if by fluke Rudy won the immunity challenge, he’d still take Rich to the final 2. So Rich took the gamble and took his hand off the idol on purpose, hoping Kelly would win—and she did. It all worked out exactly like he planned.

Kelly: Star Athlete, Star Scrub

Kelly, scrub to the very end, remarked that Rich claimed he had some reason for removing his hand, but that she knew his arm was just tired.

Kelly just never figured it out.But Kelly would have her final moment being the queen scrub. In the finals between Rich and Kelly, they were each allowed to give opening statements of why the jury of previously voted-off players should vote for them. Kelly was a pillar of inspiration to scrubs everywhere when she explained that people should vote for the best person, “not based on how they played the game.” As a scrub, she had her own made-up rules of the game that the game itself knew nothing about. She was “more honorable” and “a better friend” or other rubbish.

Rich responded by taking the exactly opposite stance, as he well should. He said that entire purpose of coming to this island was to play this game. Kelly asked for votes based on friendship, but that’s not what the votes should be based on. Friendship is great and worthwhile, but it’s not purpose of the game called Survivor. The purpose of the game is to win. The best player of the game maximizes his chances of winning at all times. In this case, that meant forming an alliance, which Rich did. Rich was basically asking the jury to leg go their mental construct of made-up rules and see the game for what it really was. He asked them to choose the player who played to win. And they did.

More Games

If the players of Survivor 2 actually learned the lessons of Survivor 1 and of competitive games in general, then things will get very messy, indeed. They’ll all try to form 4 person voting alliances. If at least two such alliances emerge, then the optimal move is to align two of the alliances to get rid everyone else. Then the 8 will compete as 4 vs 4. Then the remaining 4 would do well to have already planned partners of 2 or 3. This strategy of the shrinking alliance, though (I believe) optimal, is an incredibly tricky thing to manage in actual practice. As I said…it will be messy.

Anyway, Rich may be many things, but he is, at least, an excellent player of competitive games. It’s so telling that he was able to beat Gervase in a variety of card games Rich had never even played. I'd love to see how Rich would play other competitive games because I think he would demonstrate that there's a skill that runs underneath all competitive games that is transferable from game to game.


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Reader Comments (6)

Me and my friends were watching the finale of the current season tonight and this came up as a topic of conversation.

I have one thought about this, while Richard Hatch's final speech did encapsulate the "play to win" mentality, from a playing to win prospective, it wasn't really a good move.

There's no particular criteria for voting who you want to take home the million dollars, so people had every reason to say, "no, we don't care how technically good you are at the game, you suck as a person, and we're voting you off", and they would've been within their rights.

The fact is, "I'm a better person" is a much easier sell then "I'm a better competitor" unless you're talking to a group of competitive gamers, the average person will ignore that and vote based on personal preference. Granted, there are sometimes when it's a better strategy, that is when "I'm a better person" is an impossible sell, but if it's that impossible nobody will vote for you anyway.

Bottom line: Hatch had a made-up rule in his mind that the game did not know, that the game was only about technical advantage. Like a true scrub, he stuck to that perception to the very end, going so far as to completely ignore a very important dimension in the rules, the social one. Even when faced with a position where this made-up rule held absolutely no sway, the tribal council, he continued to blindly follow it to the end, even attempting to convince others of his made-up rules.

His speech may have been that of a true competitor, but there was a very significant portion of his behavior does not reflect this.

December 15, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterAdumbroDeus

You... are aware that the others were *coughs* encouraged to vote for the gay man to win the final challenge, right? The only game that was ever being played, at any point, was a marketing game. The Survivors themselves were all actors, from beginning to end.

The only scrubs in this game were the people watching the show and buying into it. Each and every person who actually believed that this was real is operating from some bizarre set of rules that thinks television executives operate on any principle other then maximizing their profits. Richard was not being even vaguely duplicitous when he stated the check already had his name on it, he knew that his "character" would be the most controversial, and therefore the most loved/hated/no difference to the execs because either way people were tuning in to watch him.

Fact that he then went on to be a total moron in real life (didn't declare any of the income he WON ON NATIONAL TELEVISION) indicates he is nowhere near as smart a player in competitive games as he was put forward to be in the show. Hatch was very realistic in his duplicity, but he is a complete and total scrub in the game of life.

A big hearty laugh to everyone that thinks "Reality TV shows" are any less scripted then your average episode of House or The Simpsons.

December 18, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterSohei Fox

And even so alliances are also frowned upon even in sports tournaments during pools. Taking a dive in a match to let a team you had an alliance with, or to let a team you believe is worse advance wouldn't be considered "fair play" by the common supporter (and probably many players even).
Same can be said about FPS games. Teaming in deathmatches which are supposed to be free for all? People tend to hate it. But if it was in a tournament then it would indeed be the wisest move to make.

I am a strong supporter of playing to win myself, so i guess this mostly goes to show that you either need to accept this kind of "dishonorable" strategy, or face that tournaments need to be 1on1 (or team on team), and only played in brackets so one team/player can't decide the fate of another team without even playing them. Or of course pools where only #1 advances should be enough too - even there agreements, alliances, and bribing with teams that don't have a chance of advancing anymore could still help you though (and i bet is also done by some teams).
Suppose this is relatively irellevant for the sports world though because the teams also need a group of supporters and as long as this isn't looked well upon by most people, then it would probably lead to their downfall in the long run.

February 22, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterstelzig

These are a very intelligent and well-written thoughts. I really think Survivor is an excellent example of playing to win through a free-for-all social game.

I know this article was written in 2000 when the world had only seen one game of Survivor through a heavily edited TV show. But in the 10 years since, I've played many of my own real life Survivor games, created and designed 6 complete innovative games, and watched countless numbers of people play from all sorts of angles. I can tell you that forming a 4-person alliance is an absolute recipe for disaster haha.

The reasoning is quite simple. The name of the game isn't to get to the final four - it's, as you know, to win the game. A final four alliance is inherently unstable and doomed to destruct, I've seen it so many times. You stated that "Once those 4 become the final 4, they should amicably dissolve the alliance and each try to win."

"Amicably dissolve the alliance..." that's just not going to happen haha, not with people who are playing hard to win. Players need to do everything to keep themselves in the optimal social position with power on their side throughout the entire game. In a "final four alliance," It is in player's best interests to take the advantage and break the alliance at the final five, grabbing power and creating a new alliance of three to take them to the next step.

Due to this inevitable situation, a final four alliance rarely makes it that far. The social dynamics within a four person group don't help either... there is either an odd one out (3v1), or a rift (2v2). A final five alliance is much more stable, useful, and workable within the game. It also has the advantage of being an excellent number to have control of a standard Survivor early game.

If you still follow the show or are familiar with the game, I'd love to hear your updated thoughts on Survivor. Behind all the inane reality tv tropes, the voting game itself is quite intriguing. Some people like it less because it relies less on mathematical skill like Risk or even poker, but I feel that a systematic game of social skills is incredibly enthralling in its own right.

April 23, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterSam

AdumbroDeus - I disagree. Plenty of people have played the "I played the game as hard as I could from beginning to end" card at final tribal council and won: Hatch, Heidik, Todd, Parvati, Yul. If Hatch had tried to downplay his game-play and try to make the scrub-filled jury try to believe he was a "better person" than Kelly, he would have definitely fallen flat. He would have lost the respect (and possibly the votes) of Dr. Sean and Greg, and would not have gained any of the former Pangong members' votes since they simply liked Kelly more. Hatch read the situation perfectly and played accordingly. Was his performance at the final tribal council as good as Todd's or Chris's? Nah, but the game was still in its infancy stages at this point - I'm sure if Hatch came back and made it to the end again he would have wowed us. I wouldn't be surprised if Hatch felt he had Sue and Rudy's votes on lock-down and only needed to work Sean and Greg, and catered his performance for them (since trying to get Jenna, Gervase, or Colleen's votes would have been silly - none of them would vote for him under any circumstances.)

Sirlin - if you're reading this, I would be really interested to know what you feel about the current Survivor "star", Russell Hantz... that is, assuming you still watch the show. To me, he's the epitome of scrub mentality and I can't stand it when people compare him to the great Richard Hatch.

April 28, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterpkmn

I know I'm 2 years late responding to @pkmn, but I wanted to say something for anyone else who stumbles upon this comment thread.

The reason Russell Hantz receives so much praise is his powerful consistency. For two seasons in a row, he was never voted out. It was not until his third attempt that he was finally taken down, but look at the price that was paid! The idiot tribe decided to throw a challenge just because they did not like Russell, and they ended up being obliterated in the merge that followed. (The same idiocy goes for the men of the current season One World.) Richard Hatch played intelligently at a time when the game had no history. The players all instantly latched onto the scrub mentality of thinking they needed to play alone.

Along comes Season 8 (All-Stars), and Richard Hatch was annihilated early on in the game. THAT is why people respect Russell Hantz. He finds a way to stay alive in tight situations and maintains small alliances. He made it to the end when he first appeared on the show, and he did it again amid two tribes filled with experts/winners.

OK, so Russell sucks at jury management. No one is perfect. I doubt anyone out there is 100% scrub free. Even the winners will end up having a few scrub personality traits; they will simply be less severe than those owned by everyone else. Hatch is a scrub in a lot of ways; prior comments have tried to point that out. The point is that he was less of scrub when it really mattered. Do you honestly think Natalie of season 19 would go onto win another season? Doubt it. Things just worked out for her. I would still place my money on Russell long before any of these other ridiculous winners.

May 6, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterTheBuzzSaw

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