After the all-time historic season of Survivor, Winners at War, we countdown the greatest players the game has ever seen.
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And now without further ado, let’s start with the twenty greatest players of all time.
20. JON COCHRAN
One of the most level-headed, strategic, articulate winners the game has ever seen, Jon Cochran certainly has a legacy as one of the greatest to ever play. Probably Jeff Probst’s favourite contestant ever, Cochran is another player that won his season in a unanimous vote, after bringing Dawn and Sherri to the end of Survivor Caramoan. Cochran’s evolution on the show is quite interesting to think about, considering he was so on the outs in South Pacific on the Savaii tribe, where nobody trusted him or anything he said. Fast forward a few years later, and he’s one of the most likable people on his tribe in Caramoan, everyone loves him and trusts him every step of the way. Cochran was immaculate at managing his threat level, pandering to voted out contestants during tribal councils, and importantly playing to his strengths. Cochran didn’t need to develop strong emotional bonds with his fellow castaways for them to trust him. He built trust through his strategic gameplay and his social positioning, and always treated the game as a game and nothing more. This earned the respect of all eight jurors, allowing him to win the game in a unanimous fashion.
19. ROB CESTERNINO
A revolutionary strategist, Rob’s ranking on this list feels criminally low. But it has to be, as it’s been far too long since he’s appeared on the show and unfortunately, as is famously the punch-line in his podcast with Stephen Fishbach (Survivor Know It Alls), he’s never won the game. But credit to Rob, he is the second highest of any non-winner on our list, behind only Cirie. Rob played immaculately well on Survivor Amazon, on route to a third place finish, thanks only to desperately losing the final immunity challenge. But even today, Rob deserves credit as one of the people to have changed the way the game was played. He didn’t play in a big majority alliance; he swung from side to side depending on the situation and depending on what outcome suited him best. This allowed Rob to control the game throughout. What allowed Rob to have this kind of flexibility? An underreported incredible social game, where he was in the good graces of absolutely everyone on his season to the point where they all felt like they could trust him, even if it was only for a vote or two at a time. Rob’s move to take out Christy (a.k.a. taking out the swing vote) at the final six is often credited as one of the greatest moves in the history of the game. But what people often forget, is that Rob is one of the first to really understand the idea of bringing “goats” to the end of the game – a.k.a. a batch of players that he would have easily beaten. Thus, Rob let go of big players like Heidi and Deena at exactly the right time to set himself up with a list of people that he would have comfortably beaten at the end had he just won that final challenge. I think we all sincerely hope that Rob comes back to play one day, even if it means that we wouldn’t get to hear his perspectives on his podcast – RHAP.
18. RICHARD HATCH
Many Survivor fans subscribe to the idea that without Richard Hatch, there is no Survivor…or at least there is no Survivor strategy. I don’t necessary agree with that train of thought, but I still recognize Hatch’s role in being one of the most important figureheads in the history of Survivor strategy. Although his return on Survivor: All Stars is one to be forgotten and he will likely never return again…what Hatch accomplished in Borneo still to this day remains an impressive victory. He was playing with a group of people who had virtually no clue how to play the game. But Hatch’s brilliance in Borneo extends past just outsmarting his opponents, to creating some of the key strategies used all the way up to present times in the show’s long-run. From stepping down at the final immunity challenge, to using Sean’s alphabet strategy to eliminate Jenna, to being a crucial component to both creating the first ever alliance and dominating the game with it, Hatch was ahead of his time. In part, we have Richard Hatch to thank for some of the Survivor strategy that we still see today, even if the game looks very different from when he first played it and won in Survivor Borneo.
17. JAMES “JT” THOMAS
JT played a legendary social and strategic game alongside his right-hand-man Stephen Fishbach in Survivor Tocantins. Still to this day it is considered to be one of the greatest wins in the history of the show, and one of the only unanimous final jury votes. However, few players in the history of the show have damaged their reputation as much as JT. From gifting Russell an immunity idol to gifting Brad Culpepper key information that ultimately led to Malcolm Freberg’s elimination in Game Changers, JT has had quite a few slip-ups since making a name for himself as a great player in Tocantins. This makes the Alabama-born castaway one of the toughest players to evaluate and in recent times, he’s almost become underrated in the Survivor community as we move further and further away from his stellar performance in Tocantins. JT’s superpower in Tocantins came from his likability, but he was a very persuasive talker and absolutely crucial to helping himself, Taj and Stephen overcome their 6-3 numbers disadvantage at the start of the merge, to go on and make the final four together. He also strategically dominated his original tribe, Jalapao, with the help of Stephen and Taj, and impressively won the game by a 7-0 jury vote. If it had not been for a few famous slip-ups in his second and third appearances, JT would still likely be considered one of the ten greatest players to play the game of Survivor.
16. TOM WESTMAN
Even today, after forty seasons, Tom Westman is still one of the most dominant winners to ever play the game. He was the leader of his tribe and his alliance from day one and went on to manipulate Ian into stepping down from the longest challenge in the history of the show, before winning the game in a 6-1 vote. In addition to his five immunity challenge wins, Tom was a master of assessing his opposition and eliminating them in the correct order, before they were able to gain momentum against him. He might have finished rather low on Heroes vs. Villains, but there wasn’t much that he could do beyond what he did in trying to break up the majority alliance that he was excluded from and using JT to idol out Cirie. Tom’s legacy in this game will live on forever, as one of the only winners to receive 0 votes against in their season.
15. SOPHIE CLARKE
Tragically under-edited in her first season, in which she won the game, Sophie was again under-edited in her second time out on Winners at War, despite being one of the most cutthroat players on the island. Sophie played an immaculate game on Winners at War and it was almost a fluke that Tony made a last minute decision to change the plan and eliminate her at the final nine. Sophie and Yul were arguably driving a lot of the strategy on original Dakal, before Tony and Sarah rose to power. She and Sarah then used their social prowess to turn Ben and Adam against Boston Rob, before completely cutting Jeremy out at the knees by eliminating her own ally Wendell at the start of the merge. On top of all her accomplishments in Season 40, Sophie played an incredible game in Season 23: South Pacific, where she immaculately played to the ego of Coach and took down Ozzy at the final four. Sophie is one of the best winners the game has ever seen and it’s a shame that in both of her seasons, she was not given a fair enough edit to prove that.
14. DENISE STAPLEY
Denise Stapley is truly just so good at this game. She’s fantastic at building relationships, she’s got a great mind for the game and she has made some of the most cutthroat strategic moves we’ve ever seen. From cutting Malcolm at the final four to voting out Sandra with Sandra’s own idol, Denise has never shied away from making big moves and doing what it takes to win the game. But she also knows when to lay low and play a quiet, more meticulous game, evidenced by her sixth place finish on Winners at War that needed two idols and a returnee from Edge of Extinction to take her out. What we cannot forget above all else is that Denise remains the only player to attend every single tribal council in a season and win the game. What Denise pulled off in Survivor: Philippines was truly remarkable and will probably never be replicated again.
13. YUL KWON
Yul Kwon’s move to use the idol to flip Jonathan Penner over to his side remains one of the greatest moves in Survivor history. It was the first time the immunity idol was a full part of the game rather than just a one-rounder and Yul forever revolutionized Survivor strategy when he used his idol as leverage for an ally. Some discredit his win by saying that he played with a superidol in his pocket the entire time, but he really is just one of the smartest players to ever play the game and you have to remember, he beat Ozzy, who is also a legend of the game. He even kept other players in the game for longer periods of time in order to fulfill deals for their jury votes; another way in which the Californian revolutionized the strategy of the game. When Yul came back for Winners at War, he did a remarkable job in the early stages of the game and it was a real surprise to see him go out before the merge. But whatever happend on that season, nothing will ever take away from the remarkable game he played in Survivor Cook Islands.
12. TYSON APOSTOL
Few players in the history of Survivor have been better at downplaying their threat level than Tyson Apostol. The man who milked a shoulder injury all season in Blood vs. Water ended up winning that season in practically unanimous fashion, as Vytas only cast his vote for Monica out of spite for Gervais. In addition to having an incredible mind for the game, Tyson is such a great social player. His role in pulling the likes of Ciera, Hayden and Caleb in to vote out Aras and then keeping Ciera on-side until that famous rock draw cannot be forgotten. Even despite Hayden telling everyone that Tyson was on track to win, the ex-pro cycylist managed to continue to downplay his threat level and keep Gervase and Monica from turning on him. Although he couldn’t pull off the same heroics in any of his other three seasons, Tyson remains an all-time character and legend of the game.
11. EARL COLE
Regarded as one of the greatest one-time players, Earl Cole won his season in one of the most commanding ways the show has ever seen. Long before the likes of Kim Spradlin and Jeremy Collins, Earl was incredible at making everyone feel like they were his number one ally. Even people like Dreamz and Anthony who were cast to the side by others in the game, thought of Earl as their number one, which is a massive credit to who he is as a person and a game-player. But Earl was also incredible at always staying within the game and keeping his eye on the prize. He knew that his strong relationships with everyone were eventually going to have to be disbanded in order for him to win in such a commanding fashion. His role in convincing Dreamz and Cassandra that Yau-Man was the bigger threat and the one who should go at final four cannot be understated. It did after all allow Earl to become the first ever unanimous winner of the game, winning in a 9-0-0 vote. He might never be back to play again, but regardless, Earl is a legend of the game who will live long in Survivor memory.
10. NATALIE ANDERSON
Regardless of what you think of Edge of Extinction, there’s no denying that Natalie played her heart out on Winners at War. From being the first boot to the second-place finisher and making more of an impact on the Edge than any other player before, Natalie’s game deserves an immense amount of credit. It’s absolutely ludicrous to think that she needed to throw herself into a fire-making challenge against Tony in order to win the game…and even that might not have been enough to beat Sarah had Tony gone out at final four instead. But again, regardless of what you think about the Edge, there’s no denying Natalie only enhanced her legacy in the game on Winners at War. I actually believe Natalie is one of the greatest winners and played one of the most incredible post-merge games the show has ever seen. Her social game was immaculate, but her strategic maneuvering and level of finesse in front of the jury were arguably even better. I could talk about her moves to eliminate Alec, John and Baylor for days. They truly stand out to me as the greatest series of successive moves this game has ever seen….behind probably only Chris Underwood’s final five days in the game. While Chris had a massive amount of unfair advantages and information from the Edge of Extinction…Natalie used her instincts and intelligence to out-maneuver the rest of her cast, before winning the game with ease in San Juan del Sur. She then nearly became the second coming of Chris in Winners at War and had she better managed the jury or thrown herself or Michele into fire against Tony, she could have ended up as the winner of the season.
9. JEREMY COLLINS
It’s quite possible that no one has articulated their strategy and game better in a confessional than Jeremy Collins did in Survivor Second Chance, when he coined the ‘Meat-Shield’ strategy and completely outlined how he wanted to play the game in the very first episode. For whatever reason, Jeremy’s game in Cambodia remains a bit underrated. For starters, he found two idols, correctly playing both of them; one for his close ally Stephen, the other for himself. For another, he set up his alliance in a way where everyone reported back to him, giving no one the opportunity to turn it back around on him. He played from the top the entire game and everyone could see that he was in the best position, but no one could get him out. Due to his big family and status as a fireman, no one will ever let Jeremy win the game again and that’s exactly what happened in Winners at War, where he was completely neutered by the other players around him and saved by the grace of Tony on two occasions. Despite that, Jeremy remains one of the most impressive players to ever play this game and one of the only unanimous winners.
8. TODD HERZOG
It’s a real shame that Todd Herzog has never returned to Survivor. Even today, he’s still considered one of the greatest to ever play, having played one of the greatest games of all time in Survivor China. His strategic and social management of players like John-Robert and James remains one of the masterclasses in how to play the game, and he was probably the first to use Jeremy’s meat-shield strategy to the effect that it has been replicated in recent years by players like Jeremy and Adam. In addition to stellar moves like the James blindside (yes Amanda deserves more credit), Todd also had what is considered to be one of the greatest final tribal council performances. Only 22-years old at the time of winning his season, Todd’s game remains a complete anomaly in the history books of Survivor and we are still hoping that he one day gets his chance to show just how truly capable he is as a player and strategist at this game.
7. SARAH LACINA
In Season 40: Winners at War, Sarah Lacina proved herself to be one of the all-time greatest players. Prior to the start of the season, she seemed to be a top target of many players. However, the Iowa based police officer turned that around right away and became everyone’s best friend just like she always seems to do. Sarah has everything a player needs to succeed at this game and there are very few as talented as her at gaining trust. In her past two seasons of Survivor, Sarah has received just 2 votes against. She didn’t receive a single-vote on Game Changers and only two on Season 40, both from people who went home that night. It took so many circumstances for Sarah to lose Season 40, most notably the cockamamie Edge of Extinction twist, the ridiculousness of the fire-making challenge that still should not be part of the game, Michele having a meltdown about fire-making at the final four, and Ben throwing his game away for her, causing her to make a judgement of error. Had it not been for Edge of Extinction, Sarah probably would have ended up as the second two-time winner of Survivor. So even if Sarah made two really poor errors at the end of Season 40, she proved herself to be one of the greatest social players and strategists the game has ever seen, following right where she left off in Game Changers.
6. CIRIE FIELDS
The greatest player to never win. Unquestionably. Cirie arguably should have won Survivor Panama and had it not been for a plethora of medical evacuations, very well might have stolen the crown away from Parvati on Survivor Micronesia. She’s known for insanely impressive moves like the 3-2-1 vote split she accomplished in Panama through knowing where every player was going to vote, and coming up with the idea to get Erik to give his immunity necklace to Natalie in Micronesia. But her social game simply has to supersede her stellar strategic game. Even in a season like Game Changers, where she should have been one of the first voted off, she made it all the way to final six and only became eliminated thanks to all the dumbness that Survivor has become: a game about advantages and immunity idols, rather than social maneuvering and positioning. One of the smartest number-crunchers to ever play, it’s a real shame that Cirie will likely never be a winner of this game, despite probably deserving to achieve that feat on two occasions.
5. SANDRA DIAZ-TWINE
The first ever two-time winner, Sandra Diaz-Twine, cannot be forgotten as a legend of the game. Her reputation should not be tainted whatsoever from her run on Season 40, in which she got herself idoled out of the game and then left Edge of Extinction early. She played incredibly well on Game Changers before getting screwed over by a bad swap; and prior to that, was the only two-time winner. To me, her game in Heroes vs. Villains stands out as the slightly more impressive of the two wins. She made one of the greatest moves of all time in convincing Russell to target Coach, securing her place at the merge. From there she tried and tried to get the Heroes to turn on Russell, but failed to pull it off. However, that turned out to be a key reason as to why the Heroes all voted for her, allowing her to win the game. Although she had a slightly more explosive time in Pearl Islands, Sandra was absolutely brilliant at strategically maneuvering herself in the game, making a foil out of Jonny Fairplay and eliminating Burton at the final five to effectively secure her place in the final three. Sandra’s quite clearly a two-time winner for a reason, but her accomplishments in the game go far beyond just the two seasons she won.
4. KIM SPRADLIN
Of any first-time players, Kim Spradlin quite possibly played the greatest game the show has ever seen. The interior designer simply remained untouchable throughout Survivor One World, through her immaculate social and strategic positioning. Many people don’t remember the ins and outs of her game, due to the fact that it wasn’t the flashiest, and One World was kind of a slog as a whole. But her move to convince Troyzan that Michael was targeting him, effectively eliminating Michael, remains one of the greatest and smartest plays of all time. From there she and the other women dominated, but she always kept her options open. When she returned for Season 40, Kim made it further than she had any business doing given her reputation and was one correct idol play away from completely shaking up the game in her favour. Her instincts were always correct and she was eventually taken out at the final eight due to her excellence at the game and decision to target the eventual winner, which she needed to do in order to improve her position in the game. Had that move gone through, Kim could have ended up as the winner of the game…which again, she had no business doing given the all-time game she played on Survivor One World.
3. ROB MARIANO
I believe that Boston Rob Mariano played the greatest winning game Survivor has ever seen…prior to Tony on Winners at War. The way he just completely bamboozled and ran circles around his cast-mates was remarkable and will never be seen on a season of Survivor again. That is partially due to better casting, and partially due to Rob’s brilliance. Things like the ‘Buddy System’ simply just should not have worked. But Rob made it happen. He made everyone trust him and he made everyone want to go to the end with him, completely downplaying his threat level the entire time. Rob has a mind for the game that is probably better than anyone, and his use of fear and intimidation to get the outcome that he wants is something that no other player has been able to achieve to the same extent. But his remarkable exploits don’t stop at Redemption Island. He played one of the greatest losing games in Survivor All Stars, and although he eventually lost to his wife Amber, his accomplishments on Season 8 long before Redemption Island will never be forgotten.
2. PARVATI SHALLOW
There are only a select few players to make it to the final tribal on two seasons. Parvati did it on two of the most difficult seasons ever, against some of the trickiest players to ever play. Sandra might be the only two-time winning queen of the game, but many believe that honour should have gone to Parvati and that she should have won Heroes vs. Villains. Her move to play her idols for Jerri and Sandra at the merge stands out as what is probably still the greatest move in Survivor history. Not only did she play one of, if not the all-time greatest losing game in Survivor history, she also played one of the very best winning games in Fans vs. Favourites. Coming back, it was always going to be impossible for a player of Parvati’s stature to remain under the radar on Winners at War, but her legacy was not tainted one bit, as fans still remember her historic run in her successive seasons over a decade ago.
1. TONY VLACHOS
After winning Winners at War and becoming a two-time champion/the king of Survivor, Tony Vlachos has to be considered the greatest of all time. No player in the history of Survivor has played a more flawless game on an all-star season, if not any season of the show. Tony did not receive a single vote all season, overcome the absurd “extortion” disadvantage, won four immunity challenges, found an idol, won the final four fire-making challenge, and had allies completely willing to go with him to the end despite the fact that he would have won the game against anyone. As if that wasn’t enough, his first performance on Cagayan was one of the all-time best and he pulled off remarkable feats, most notably getting Woo to take him to the end. Tony can forget about his struggles in Game Changers and now focus on his two all-time performances on Survivor Cagayan, and Survivor Winners at War and be happy to have the title that many will now give him – the greatest player of all time.
So there it is! The ten greatest Survivor players of all time after forty seasons. Make sure to comment below who you think should be higher or lower. Thanks for reading and see you soon!