Survivor’s Russell Hantz: The King?

16 Aug

Sure you can trust me.

We have slightly outdated screenings of Survivor, so it is only now that we have been introduced to the self-proclaimed king of the game, Russell Hantz. In the finale of Heroes vs Villains (2010), he gave his assessment of two-time winner Sandra, claiming that there are three elements to the game, and that she was bad at all of them. So lets look at his performance in those areas and see if he’s the king.


First there’s the physical game. Sandra has never won a challenge, and she’s not great in camp. Yet at least has the excuse that she’s of the fairer sex, and as fairness goes she got a slightly raw deal on athleticism when God handed out abilities. Russell the king might be better than Sandra, but it’s not a high bar. Someone like Boston Rob proved streets better in all physical tasks. Russell gets 5/10.


Boston Rob: Both the Greater and Lesser of two Evils

So what about the social game? Russell accused Sandra of being poor because she is confrontational and disliked by many. Yet she is also sly, she manipulates without people realising or blaming her for it, and she is loyal to her friends. Russell aims to be in power, so he tries to weaken and to bully and to deceive. Everyone knows he’s doing it, and they hate him for it. Even his alliances are weak and easily broken. There’s a proverb that goes, ‘There’s honour among thieves,’ but Russell doesn’t even understand that about social organisation. Boston Rob is also a power player and a deceiver, but people still like him. Russell was good at using people, but when it came to needing them (at the jury) no one gave him a single vote. Socially Russell gets about 2/10, but only because he’s got just enough skill as a liar to earn the trust that he needs to be able to abuse.


So onto strategy then, the area in which Russell believes he is the greatest player ever. Russell’s strategy is Stalinist. He gains power, allies with as many people as can be made to do his bidding, and he brutally eliminates anyone who gives a hint of turning on him before they can damage his position. Russell gains power by being antisocial: he lowers morale in his camp, he eliminates strong players early, even if his tribe starts losing (because when they’re losing, his mediocre physicality becomes an asset). It is true that Russell is very, very good at playing the hand he’s dealt, and he is quick to see what is going on. The trouble is, being Stalin only works if you can make the rules of the society in which you’re operating. Russell is able to get trust because it is currency in Survivor, and people are willing to give some in order to get some. But bullying and lying and betraying is a terrible strategy if you’re working in a democracy, and if you are to be judged by the fallen. In fact, it’s about as bad a strategy as you can get. As Rupert pointed out, it is easy to lie and backstab. The reason everyone doesn’t do it isn’t that it is hard to think of or hard to do; it’s that everyone but Russell seems to know that you can’t get away with it (and it hurts people — not everyone is comfortable with that).

Pictured: Three players who are better than Russell. Out of frame: many more players better than Russell.

Russell was good at making it work, but as a strategy it is not even good-except-for-jury-votes. Players are always wary of being leader, because being in power makes you a target. Russell could have been voted out if the mood went against him just for that. Making too many alliances is good for manipulation purposes, but if players get wind that you’re making exclusive promises to them and everyone else, chances are you’re out next. Ruining your own tribe is good for getting you on top, but it also means you’re going to lose more and have more eliminations. That improves your odds of being voted off, especially if people start to realise you’re the bad apple. Being arrogant and insecure, and being a bully and a liar, are all qualities that often make you worse to keep than to lose. He could have been voted off just for that, if the mood had gone against him. All of these elements are necessary to Russell’s antisocial strategy, but they’re all extremely risky. Credit to him for finding idols and things just in time to save his skin, and for finding ways out of the problems that his strategy creates, but it’s not good strategy. He could play the game ten more times and never get to the merge.

By contrast, Boston Rob plays the power game, but he has loyal alliances, and he helps his team to win and be stronger. Parvati is as good at manipulating and surviving, but she didn’t have to burn everything down to do it. Her strategy is far lower risk. Sandra was even able to drop a word in Russell’s ear about Coach that led him to go after a member of his own alliance, and to leave Sandra’s alliance alone. He didn’t even know it was a play, because Sandra is strategically smart. So Russell’s strategy needs to be evaluated on two levels. On problem solving, he gets 9/10 or better. On game strategy, as JT said to him, he makes his own bed and he needs to lay in it. His strategy is set up for failure. It’s a 3/10 at best.

The Fourth Element

“I must be king, see my jungle sceptre. And this stick I’m holding.”

There’s actually a fourth element to the game that didn’t make it into Russell’s evaluation of Sandra, and that is the ability to make an argument to the jury. JT also said to him that getting to the end is only half the game; winning the jury is the other half. It was the highlight of the whole season to see hamfisted Russell trying to stand up for his strategy and to watch the two women absolutely destroy him in every possible way under jury examination. They knew what to say when it needed saying, when to be quiet, how to make themselves look good, how to work favourable angles. Sandra won twice because she’s a 10/10 player in front of the jury. Russell is so bad at this that he can’t even get a score. In his first season, he was up against a player who rode coattails all the way, and the jury still gave her the prize instead of him. He’s terrible.

So, using the three criteria by which he dismissed Sandra, Russell is nowhere near the greatest player. Even at his own strategy-type, he’s way below Rob, for example. He proved himself to be as clever as Rob, but that’s where the comparison ends. I’m not a big Rob fan, but he at least only lost out to Amber in his season because everyone knew they’d lose to him in the jury vote. I couldn’t understand why no one got rid of Russell towards the end until it dawned on me that everyone would want to take Russell to the end because he’s so easy to beat. King indeed.


7 Responses to “Survivor’s Russell Hantz: The King?”

  1. Jordan Pickering August 16, 2012 at 10:11 am #

    Ugh. Read an article that says he’s on another season of Survivor. So we have to endure more of him then?

  2. Gareth Heuer (@gdheuer) August 16, 2012 at 11:00 am #

    A decent read. Two quick comments: 1. Don’t say you aren’t a Rob fan. Reread your post and you will notice that you definitely seem to be a Rob fan.

    How does Russell make it to the end every time if his strategy is so “weak”? If Survivor is a democracy then surely bullies shouldn’t stand a chance? In neither of the seasons he has been a part of has anyone said he is easy to take to the end so I don’t know if that was even part of their thinking. He also hardly gets voted for throughout the season.

    The reason I like Russell is because he plays according to his game plan. He is one of the few players who is honest about his strategy – which I respect (even though the strategy is based on an aggressive approach). I cannot stand someone like Sandra (who clearly had nothing going for her – and in her weakness gets given the million dollars) who in front of the jury says: “I was loyal, I wasn’t nasty, I’m the sole survivor etc. etc.”. She threw Russell under the bus at the jury (which of course only makes sense if you want the money) and once she wins the money she becomes this terrible person (her attitude at the announcement of the winner was disgraceful).

    One thing I love about this show is that it really makes one think about what the best/worst approach to the game is. In all 20 seasons we’ve had have I hardly felt that the winner played the best game. I think when it comes to Russell, people love to hate him and I think it’s because he plays so hard and is willing to do things in the game that we think we’re not capable of.

    I get a Lord of the Flies feeling whenever I watch Survivor. Thanks for the post again. Clearly made me think about it quite a bit.

    • Jordan Pickering August 16, 2012 at 11:40 am #

      Haha! I swear I’m not a Rob fan! I actually couldn’t stand him in the earlier seasons (or on the Amazing Race), but he was better this time. He is a good all-round player though.

      As for Russell, he acknowledged no luck whatsoever in his success, when as I’ve pointed out, I think that so much of his behaviour could have seen him evicted (as similar behaviour did for others in other seasons). Finding immunity idols (and using them well) saved his skin a lot of times when he would otherwise have gone (and yes, it is a good dose of luck to find something that could be hidden anywhere). But also, as I’ve said, solving the problem of being on the chopping block is his supreme skill, and he destroys people who show hints of disloyalty before they think of acting against him.

      So, he gets to the end because he plays a great game of conquest. He’s good at a head-to-head contest. If you said to him and Sandra at the start, ‘An extra $100g to whichever one of you is able to get the other voted out before the merge,’ I’d back Russell. Trouble is, it’s not a game of conquest. It’s a game of diplomacy. And Russell is the worst diplomat in the universe.

      To make his strategy usable, he has to convince the jury with the line, ‘You should be proud of me that I used you so well’. Given that no one even likes him before he betrays them, he’s not good enough to make that work. He was not able to win a single jury member over. Even Jerry who sold her soul to him midway through the game didn’t consider him. She was torn between the other two. Russell’s is bad strategy. He’s like someone who bribes his way into a final by selling both his legs when he knows the last event is a running race. It’s a dumb strategy. He’s also arrogant and keeps crowing about how awesome he is. He’s a sore loser and a sore winner before he’s even won anything.

      I agree Sandra was a sore winner too. I was disappointed in that, but she was not less deserving than Russell. She made quiet moves, and she is outstanding, given her lack of power, at throwing the right people under the bus. She’s like a tiny judo master. Excellent with the jury too, imo. Parvati was better than both of them (but I still didn’t want her to win).

  3. Debbie H August 16, 2012 at 2:21 pm #

    Ah, just found your other blog!!! What I can’t understand about Russell is how he makes it to the end, don’t they know by now that he should be first to go – why give him the satisfaction of even making it to day 4?

    • Jordan Pickering August 16, 2012 at 2:41 pm #

      In a perfect world, Debbie, only in a perfect world. Could they have been screening Russell’s first season while they were shooting the second? No I suppose not. Don’t know why anyone tolerated (or believed) him in Heroes-Villains.

  4. Dan October 4, 2015 at 6:22 am #

    Congratulations, you all are proving the primary reason why Russell didn’t win: subconscious prejudice. You all have your thoughts colored by how he looks and how he talks. Especially the poster of this article, he hates him so much due to how he looks that he thinks he’s like the worst player to play the game, which is a huge joke.

    You’ve let his appearance effect so much of your opinion that you start believing the lies you tell yourself. “Even his alliances are weak and easily broken.” You pretty much have discredited your whole article with that one line. Please explain that one to me, oh wait, there’s no possible way you can. Remember the whole 4v8 thing in Samoa, and how there were 3 of the 4 in the final vote? No, apparently not. Him taking his tribe of 4 to the end of the game against 8 automatically catapults him into the league of the best survivor players ever. But to you, he’s a hardcore turncoat(who exactly did he turn on?)

    Take a look at the list of cast members from this season(or any season for that matter). If you took a photograph of Russell, handed it to each of them before the season, and asked “would you ever vote for this player to win?” or “does this look like a solid, trustworthy player” or “would you consider aligning yourself with this guy?” I’d bet the majority of them would answer “no” to all 3 questions.

    Moving on from my “looks” argument, which I truly believe is the underlying factor deciding against him, I’d like to refute a few more things. You constantly point out things that “he could have been voted off for”. He played in back-to-back seasons and was never voted out. Does that not hold ANY significance to you? Two seasons in a row, and he made it to the finals, yet he played such an awful game and did tons of things “he could have been voted off for”.

    You’re just a bad “fan”. Kind of like how there are bad winners and bad losers, you’re a bad fan. You’ve let your personal hatred, which was probably borne from his outward appearance moreso than his actions, effect your thought process, whether you know it or not.

    Other players have played games similar to Russell, but they all seem insignificant compared to his gameplay in Samoa. He called the shots on just about every vote, pre-merge and post-merge. Luck didn’t play a role in surviving pre-merge, you may claim he did all these things wrong and “should have” been voted off, but the fact of the matter is he had absolute power. The people on his tribe respected his power so much, that they figured if they said anything bad about him, the news would make it’s ways to Russell and they’d be voted out promptly. How can you have a bad social game and yet still rule with an iron fist, the answer is you straight up can’t. You compare him to Stalin, yet Russell didn’t have the secret police to scare them into submission. His power came from his social game and his connections with nearly everyone on the tribe. Moves weren’t made against him because they were scared. They were scared for two reasons related to one another. The first reason is that they are concerned that the person they are talking to will turn around and tell Russell what they said. They’re concerned about this because they know that everyone on the tribe is connected to Russell in one way or another. The second reason, is the repercussion of word making its way back to Russell. After Russell proved his power after the first couple of vote offs, people began to realize that if you somehow get on his bad side he will vote you off promptly, and that there’s very little they can do about it. That’s what absolute power in Survivor boils down to: a strong, many-armed network of connections, this makes people fear who they can trust and are way less likely to plot not knowing if their conversation will remain private. Couple that with the ability to more or less decide who’s voted out, and you have absolute power.

    The concept of power is also very interesting, because it carried over into the merge, even though his actual power decreased. His teammates were so used to all the power he wielded pre-merge, that it effected their judgment post-merge.

    Also, if Russell wasn’t so great, why would someone like Jaison say to him out of the blue things like “you deserve to win this game”. I believe Natalie said the same thing a few times. I also think that Natalie wasn’t expecting to win before coming to the jury. People who are still in the game tend to think that “Outwit, Outlast, Outplay” is the deciding factor, when in reality a lot of stuff goes into that final vote. Things like peoples outward appearance and gender have a large impact on the vote.

    I also don’t like the mentions of back-stabbing. He really didn’t do much backstabbing, he took out his enemies and wouldn’t turn on his allies. He tricked his opposition, he used deception to take out the people with the numbers. These people were not in his alliance, they were his enemies. He really didn’t do anything personal post-merge. He didn’t really screw many people over. The people he took out were the people who crossed him, what’s wrong with that? Tell me how many people sitting on the jury in Samoa were straight up screwed or backstabbed by him, because to me it looked like there was only one: Jaison.

    Ugh, I’m tired. Hopefully you can come to terms with how outward appearance effects your judgment. If Russell Hantz was classically good looking and well-spoken there’s a good chance he could have won both seasons playing the same exact game. Who knows, maybe you think he’s bad because he called a bunch of women dummies and dumbasses. Compared to him, they are. Compared to the average person, who knows, Natalie has a good bit of common sense but doesn’t seem particularly bright.

    Look at how Russell was perceived immediately following the merge by the opposing tribe. They didn’t know anything about him, and yet they all assumed he was powerful and conniving and untrustworthy. These conclusions were made from the fact he was still in the game and his outward appearance, moreso the appearance. Don’t you think you might be doing the same thing?

    • Jordan Pickering October 4, 2015 at 7:36 am #

      Hi Dan, on what grounds do you think I’m making a judgement based on appearance or that I like classically handsome players better? (And not being American, I wouldn’t know what prejudices I’m supposed to have about his accent). All my arguments are based on his claim to be the king of the game (as opposed to someone ‘useless’ like Sandra). Strategically, he plays a short game; he plays negatively, making alliances with the weak to weaken his own tribe, breaking them when it suits him. But in terms of the long game, he takes an approach that cannot ultimately win the game. As was pointed out a few times on the show, as I recall, he only makes it to the end because every other player is certain that they can beat him in front of a jury, and so they all wanted him around for that reason. Remember, this is a game about winning the last jury vote, and every other player reasoned that Russell could not win. So yes, he gets second place, but only because first place knows he’s a bigger loser. It’s bad strategy. He’s not king, he’s joker.

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