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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We have slightly outdated screenings of Survivor, so it is only now that we have been introduced to the self-proclaimed king of the game, Russell Hantz.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.


Ungenius in History 3: The Biggest Bankruptcy

1 Feb

Stephen Pile’s Book of Heroic Failures reporting:

British bankruptcy history was made in 1978 by Mr William Stern. The 43-year-old property dealer’s assets totalled £10,070. His total liabilities were in excess of £100,000,000.

Hearing the case in the Royal London Bankruptcy Court, Mr Alan Sales, the Official Receiver, said, ‘This bankruptcy has been described as the world’s biggest, but really it is a very ordinary bankruptcy with noughts at the end.’

Ungenius in History 2: The Least Successful Saving

22 Oct

LampIn view of our modern preoccupation with all things environmentally friendly, we might side with the Bramber Council who opted to turn off the lights for three days. Unfortunately their motivation was cost-saving, and that was where their complete stupidity got Stephen Pile’s attention:

In 1974 Bramber Parish Council decided to go without street lighting for three days as a saving. Afterwards the parish treasurer was pleased to announce that, as a result, electricity to the value of £11.59 had been saved. He added, however, that there was an £18.48 bill for switching the electricity off and another of £12.00 for switching it on again. It had cost the council £18.89 to spend three days in darkness.

Ungenius in History 1: Worst Bus Service

1 Oct

The Book of Heroic FailiuresThe Book of Heroic Failures by Stephen Pile (1979) is one of my favourites. Subtitled ‘The Official Handbook of the Not Terribly Good Club of Great Britain’, it catalogues a magnificent collection of the world’s least successful endeavours. Here’s a peach entitled, ‘The Worst Bus Service’:


Can any bus service rival the fine Hanley to Bagnall route in Staffordshire? In 1976 it was reported that the buses no longer stopped for passengers. This came to light when one of them, Mr Bill Hancock, complained that buses on the outward journey regularly sailed past queues of up to thirty people. Councillor Arthur Cholerton then made transport history by stating that if these buses stopped to pick up passengers, they would disrupt the time-table.