Poker Strategy From Reality TV

The Game of Survivor

Poker Survivor"One can win the war but lose the peace." -- Venkiah Naidu

I have previously written about how poker tactics are not poker strategy, and about how a reality TV show like Survivor has poker lessons to offer us.

Survivor Samoa was the 19th season of the program where twenty or so players work to outwit, outplay and outlast their opponents. One player is voted off the island each week by the other players until there are just two (or three) finalists left, at which point the most recent seven (or nine) players voted off vote for which finalists they want to award the $1,000,000 first prize.

Survivor Samoa was notable for having the best tactical player in the history of the show, Russell Hantz. Russell manipulated his opponents endlessly, found key prizes ("immunity idols") on the island without any clues (something never done before, that the producers of the show never considered possible), made a wide variety of alliances with other players (including his "dumb girl" alliance with three female players), and so on.

The show started with the contestants divided into two "tribes" of ten players each, but when they merged into one tribe Russell's side was down eight players to four. Through Russell's manipulations (and some help from the other three) the four person tribe managed to all make it to the final four players by picking off the outmatched opponent tribe one by one.

After voting out one of their own four, the three finalists pled their case for why they should be voted the winner to the jury of nine players that each one of them voted to eliminate. Russell clearly expected to win based on having played the best tactical game in Survivor history. BUT, Survivor is not just about game tactics. It is also a social game, meaning you have to get a majority of the jury votes, and the jury can vote on whatever criteria they want. Russell was overconfident because he thought the jury would appreciate his tactics, but his gloating, dismissive way of dealing with the jury members and now the other finalists ended up alienating the jury, who instead awarded the million dollar prize to "nice girl" Natalie White.

Russell was stunned and near tears at losing. He shouldn't have been though. In two previous seasons poker player Amanda Kimmel was by far the best tactical player, making it to the finals both times she played -- and both times did not win. In short, the jury didn't like that she (and Russell) outplayed them, and awarded the prize to a less threatening (and much less tactically skilled) player. Also, the best tactical player before Russell, poker player Rob Mariano, also lost when he made it to the finals -- but his game was so good he end up marrying the woman who won!

In Amanda's case, she lost in part because Alpha females always have trouble winning popularity contests because they threaten both weak men and less talented women, but after Russell lost it really became clear to me that the phenomenon of "winning the battles but losing the war" cursed Russell in the same way it cursed her. As the opening quote in this article states, Russell losing was "winning the war but losing the peace." He seemed to think he had won the game, and voting was a formality, when in fact the voting is a separate, critical unit of the game... even if it takes less than an hour while the rest of the game is spread over 39 days.

To win a game like Survivor, you need a strategy that takes you to the final finish line. Flashy, temporary triumphs are of little value. The game only ends when the last vote is cast. Being tactically best at some aspects of the game does not mean you will end up a winner.

So it is in poker. Most poker players see short term tactics (playing hands) and tactical victories in the wrong light. Tactical hand playing skills are important too be sure, but poker is a "meta-game" where strategy and actions outside the actual card-playing impact the game. Poker is a lifelong game where self-control, bankroll management, game and table selection, and other skills are all more important than the actual card-playing.

The game of Survivor has social aspects that come into play on top of the tactical maneuverings to vote people off. Being the best at some aspects of the game doesn't make you the best player or the best player at all aspects of the game. Survivor is a 39 day game that does have an end point. Poker does not (unless you quit playing completely). Poker requires meta-skills that many tactical card players simply are horrible at. Managing your bankroll, not giving in to demons like playing craps or doing drugs, not spending money like a sailor when you have a rush of good fortune, making sound investments with your bankroll (making a mule of your money) so that it productively produces its own income when not sitting on the poker table, not going on tilt when adversity knocks you on your butt... these and many more meta-skills make great overall, longrun, winning poker players.

Six months later Russell Hantz once again proved himself to be possibly the best tactical Survivor player ever and definitely the worst strategic player ever when he again made the finals in Survivor Heroes vs. Villains -- and proceeded to not get a single vote from the jury. In fact, it seemed likely that he would not have gotten a single jury vote from anyone regardless of who he faced in the end. If anyone needed to be reminded that tactics can only get you so far in any game, Russell's second game performance really drove this message home.

Also see Poker Ego, Why Play Poker? and Playing Your A-Game