"You just stole a million dollars. Well played," professional poker player Jean-Robert said while casting his final vote for Todd Herzog, the winner of "Survivor: China."
Todd, whom host Jeff Probst noted was just 14 when the series debuted in 2000, has been a student of the game, and he proved that in his final Tribal Council appearance. He made a successful case for his victory, gaining the votes of even those he betrayed, such as Jean-Robert.
Having formed alliances with both Amanda and Courtney early in the game, Todd was up against them in the final three, but ultimately his transparency and persuasiveness — and their missteps — gave him the win by a vote of 4 to 2 to 1, with Courtney placing second.
Courtney essentially acknowledged that Todd was the better player. "I think airing Todd's dirty laundry is pretty redundant. I think he wears it on his sleeve. I think every single person here knows exactly every bad thing Todd's done, and that's why you're sitting over there," she said, admitting that "he might be deserving" of the $1 million.
When jury member Jaime cast her final vote, she told Todd, "You did not have my vote coming into this. I'm very impressed with your answers this evening, and that's why you got my vote."
That's because Todd gave coherent, straightforward answers about his game play. Many seasons of "Survivor" have been won in final Tribal Councils, when the eventual winner told members of the jury what they needed to hear to heal their wounds — or at least putting a bandage on them.
This time, the opposite happened. For the most part, Todd explained and apologized for the injuries he inflicted, while Amanda tried to hastily bandage hers but ended up opening brand-new wounds. (As Courtney acknowledged that she was "the longest shot to win" in part because of her "winning personality," she became the jury's back-up vote.)
Amanda, who won the last two immunity challenges and the final reward challenge, seemed to be in the strongest position going up against the jury. Extremely likable, she also proved herself to be an effective player who didn't irritate people like Todd tended to do.
But Amanda became defensive and stubborn when trying to explain her actions and couldn't make a compelling argument for her victory besides citing her rather smart strategy to get rid of James and his two immunity idols.
Her inability to elaborate on her game play was even more striking considering that she and Todd entered into an alliance on day one, and thus on day 39, essentially had the exact same track record. The difference, however, was that Todd was able to both explain his moves and take credit for them, while Amanda was barely visible in his shadow.
Jury members may want the eventual winner to lie to them and inflate their egos, but they also don't want to lose to a player they perceive as weaker than themselves. Todd was that better player, and earned four votes as a result.
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Perhaps his biggest sin came in recent weeks, when his successful game play and position of power led to arrogance. That almost cost him the game, never mind the respect he deserves for playing so smartly.
Amanda admitted to both us and to Todd that she didn't trust her ally, although Todd insisted that he fully and completely trusted her. While she could have easily turned on him and at the very least forced a tie in the penultimate Tribal Council, Amanda stuck with Todd.
Ultimately, it was another alliance that started to chip away at Amanda's chance at winning. Amanda apparently promised Denise that she wouldn't write her name down, and then did, leaving Denise feeling betrayed. But even before that, Amanda told everyone at the second-to-last Tribal Council that while she had an agreement with Denise, it had essentially expired earlier.
That prompted an incredulous response from Todd and served as the beginning of the argument he made to the jury about why he deserved the prize.
During the live reunion, Todd explained his strategy, which he constructed before meeting his challengers. He recognized his own weaknesses and compensated for them, and played to his strengths. "I needed a second person who I could trust from day one. I needed someone smaller than me. I needed to be friends with a strong guy. I had all of these people in my mind that could help me get here and I can't believe it worked," he said, still shocked.
What also worked was a bit of ego inflating. During the final Tribal Council, Todd did what many winners before him have done, stroking the egos of their juries. Todd focused most on Jean-Robert, who ended up giving him that all-important tie-breaking vote.
Perhaps more important, Todd did his best to draw a distinction between his friendships and the game. In his opening statement, he said, "I had to lie, I had to backstab, and I had to hurt people I care about," but hoped the jury would differentiate between "my strategic game and the [relationships] I built with you." They did.
Too often on other competition-based reality shows, such as CBS' "Big Brother," contestants use "it was a game" to excuse their abhorrent interpersonal behavior. Here, though, the explanation actually seemed genuine. Todd simply voted his friends out — betrayal, sure, but he didn't precede that behavior with weeks of elaborate lies or alliances that shifted on a daily basis, as we've seen in past seasons.
Todd held firmly to his core alliance and shed members of his larger tribe and alliance when that made the most sense, and there really is no better way to play a constantly shifting, ever surprising game like "Survivor."