It’s been almost 16 years since Survivor premiered on CBS, and in that time we’ve seen 30 winners throughout 31 seasons of the show. I thought now would be a great time, while we’re on the verge of a new season premiere, to do a winner’s ranking blog. This is something I’ve thought about for a while now, trying to figure how the million dollar winners of the show compare and contrast with each other. While I don’t think there’s any such thing as a bad winner of Survivor (if you can last 39 days on that show, chances are you have a deserving argument), I think it would be fun to try to figure out just who the greatest winners are, and why it is they are the best. Of course these are all just my opinions, and I’d love to hear and thoughts or criticisms of my list, so here is my winner’s ranking, from 30 to 1:
- Natalie White (Season 19: Samoa)
– While there is no such thing as a bad winner of Survivor, I don’t think it’s particularly scandalous to say that Natalie won the game by default. She kept tight to her original tribe’s alliance, with notorious villain Russell Hantz and beleaguered tribe leader Mick Trimming. When it came time for the jury to hand over a million dollars, bitterness and disgust took over, and Natalie, who did less to alter the course of the game than Russell, was crowned the winner because she was the one they could stomach the best as winner. Natalie’s win goes down as one of the most bizarre, and potentially the least deserving ever, but Natalie herself played a solid game, and with her southern charm and bright spirit, it’s hard to protest her victory too much.
- Vecepia Towery (Season 4: Marquesas)
– Marquesas was a dull season in general, and its final two outcome was one of the low points of the series, and still stands to be one of the lowest over a dozen years later. Vecepia Towery and Neleh Dennis went head to head in the Final tribal council, and Vecepia just barely squeaked out a win with a 4-3 vote. The reason I have Vecepia so low on my list is because she really didn’t do much to deserve her spot at the end. She didn’t play the game to any real extent, she just sat back and let everyone else backstab and play each other while forgetting all about her. It’s a great strategy for getting to the end, and sometimes it ends up paying off big time, but it doesn’t make for a memorable Survivor game. “V” played her game, and played it well, but it doesn’t stand up strong against the best Survivor winners out there.
- Jud ‘Fabio’ Birza (Season 21: Nicaragua)
– Fabio was such a likable character, and despite his goofy charms and aloofness, it was easy to see why the jury awarded him the title of Sole Survivor. Fabio won crucial immunities at the right times and stayed positive in a game that was at times bitter and intense. The only knock on the guy as a winner is that he really didn’t seem to get a full grasp of the game, and really only won by being the most likable guy left on day 39. But all of that aside, Fabio was wonderful character for the show and his win salvaged and otherwise bad season.
- Bob Crowley (Season 17: Gabon)
– Bob had a really interesting story arc on his season; the outdoorsman who comes in handy for his tribe is on the outside of the alliance but stays around and somehow outlasts everybody. It was about as unlikely of a winner’s story as the show has seen, but it was well-earned and somewhat deserved. Bob ended up in the perfect final three scenario with the two players who did the least strategically post-merge, and even though he had some enemies on the jury, the vote ended up his way in the end. Mr. Crowley was not the flashiest winner ever, nor was he the most in control of his destiny, but I think he was the best possible winner we could’ve gotten out of the final six.
- Danni Boatwright (Season 11: Guatemala)
– Danni’s win was impressive because she managed to fly under the radar completely. She just played nice and everyone somehow forgot that the entire early segment of the jury were her allies. Despite her well-deserved victory, I can’t help but feel like the last memory of Guatemala is just how much players like Stephenie and Rafe screwed their own games up by being cocky. Maybe it’s unfair of me, but I think of Danni’s win more in terms of others’ losses than her victory.
- Jenna Morasca (Season 6: The Amazon)
– Jenna was another very under-the-radar player on her season, someone who went along with the schemes of others, but eventually found her own footing in the game. She had this dark horse quality about her which was admirable, and her surprise victory really tied together a very successful season of the show. She may not be considered one of the best winners of the show, but she sure played one of the most unique games of any Sole Survivor.
- Amber Mariano (Brkich) (Season 8: All-Stars)
– All-Stars was painful to watch in many ways. It was a game of bitterness and betrayal, one where fame and ego seemed to supersede the game of Survivor. Rob and Amber epitomized everything that was wrong with this season, and while Amber did play a great game to get to the end, you have to look at how she got there and who she got there with to decide where she ranks among the winners of this game. Rob did all of the dirty work for them, and he kind of shielded her because he fell in love with her, yet she came out the victor in a split vote. Was it a deserving victory? Was it the right decision? I’m not really sure, but I do know I won’t be watching this season a second time any time soon.
- Sophie Clarke (Season 23: South Pacific)
– Sophie’s crowning as Sole Survivor was cool, but I feel like it was kind of a team victory for her alliance. South Pacific’s final three was probably the only time in 31 seasons of watching this show where I legitimately would have been comfortable with any of them winning. I think it was fitting that Sophie pulled ahead on day 39 since it was her who actually slayed the dragon, who was in this case Ozzy. Sophie probably has the lowest profile of any winner of the show, being heavily overshadowed by the likes of Coach, Ozzy, Cochran, Brandon, etc. but she played a really smart, sensible game that paid off in the end. I really think she’s a good winner even if her game wasn’t particularly flashy.
- Mike Holloway (Season 30: Worlds Apart)
– Mike had one large social faux pas and spent his last dozen days or so fighting like hell to stay in the game. The fun thing is that all his fighting worked as he went on one of the most ridiculous immunity runs we’d ever seen on the show and came out as the clear cut winner when the dust settled. I still haven’t quite made up my mind on Mike since he was crowned victor less than a year ago. Should I be impressed by his challenge winning, or should I think less of him as a winner because he put himself in such a hole that he had to win immunities to stay alive? I think his legacy will have to settle a little bit before I decide to rank him any higher than this.
- Tina Wesson (Season 2: The Australian Outback)
– Tina was the second winner of the show, and as such, is unanimously deemed a legend by Survivor fans. She played a smart social game very different to the game Richard Hatch played to win season 1, but she was very much overshadowed during her season by larger personalities. The season could have easily been called the Jerri and Colby show because those were the two who got the majority of the storytelling focus, and even though Tina played a great game, I can’t help but feel like Colby should’ve been voted the winner. For that reason, Tina slots in at the bottom third of my list.
- Aras Bauskauskas (Season 12: Panama)
– Aras is another one of those winners who just happened to be less interesting than a lot of his castmates. I think Aras played a good game; he was athletic and good in challenges and played a wonderful social game, so there’s really nothing to complain about in terms of his game. His place in Survivor lore would be more prominent if he played with a stronger cast though, and it also would have helped if a lot of his castmates weren’t as great of television characters as they were. Still, a million dollars is a lot of money, and Aras earned his prize and title.
- Tony Vlachos (Season 28: Cagayan)
– Tony played a diabolical and hectic game on his way to the title of Sole Survivor, controlling and manipulating the game at every move. Watching Tony play an all-out game made this season one of the most enjoyable of all time, but maybe his winning performance wasn’t an all time great one. Tony got really lucky on two occasions, the first being when Kass flipped on her alliance when they had Tony and LJ looking like fools, and the second was when Woo took him to the end when going up against Kass would’ve been a slam dunk. Don’t get me wrong though, Tony played a great game, but for him to win, he needed a lot of luck.
- Sandra Diaz-Twine (Season 7: Pearl Islands/Season 20: Heroes vs, Villains)
– You would think the only person to have won the game twice would be higher on the list, right? Wrong. I can respect Sandra’s style of play to a certain extent, but I don’t think either one of her wins were particularly great. She didn’t make big moves and she didn’t control the game, she just had a way about her that made her easy to overlook. Going up against Lill and Russell were both easy wins anyway, so I’m sorry to say it, but there isn’t anything amazing to see here with Sandra. She’s a good winner, but not a great one.
- Kim Spradlin (Season 24: One World)
– Kim played a fairly dominating game in One World, but the whole season was such a mess that it kind of weakens her place among the greats. Or maybe it’s just my bias…I never really liked Kim as a player and I’m still kind of upset that people respected her game and her leadership as much as they did. I think this is a season I’ll have to re-watch in order to gain a better appreciation for Kim as a winner, but until then, she comes in mid-pack in my rankings.
- Rob Mariano (Season 22: Redemption Island)
– Boston Rob is a Survivor legend. It was ratings gold to bring Rob and Russell back for a showdown, seeing as the producers were really pissed that neither of them got a win at any point. It was also really nice of them to stack the season with a bunch of really oddball or naïve players to make it just that much easier. Rob’s performance in this season was dominating, but why is it that the whole thing feels just a little rigged?
- John Cochran (Season 26: Caramoan)
– Cochran had a pretty interesting run on his first season, being a guy who backstabbed his alliance and paid a big price for it. On his second go around, Cochran avoided the pit falls, and kept his faith in his alliance throughout the game. He had actually made it all look a bit too easy, winning unanimously in a season that seemingly had progress but fell very flat towards the end. It’s a shame for Cochran that his season was so poor or else he may have ended up a bit higher on my list, but I think he’s doing just fine as is in the real world.
- Parvati Shallow (Season 16: Micronesia)
– Parvati was quite the vixen in Micronesia, spinning all the boys in her web only to eat the alive, hence the term given to her end-game alliance; ‘Black Widow Brigade.’ Parvati was one of many key members of her alliance, all of whom probably had an equal argument for why they should have won, but in the end Parvati ends up with the title, the money, and the never-ending praise of Jeff Probst. I don’t really think Boston Rob and her are the two greatest players to play the game like Probst likes to call them, which is evident by my ranking both of them mid-pack on the list. Sure, they’re entertaining, but entertainment and good Survivor play are not mutually exclusive, certainly not the way I see things. With that being said, I still would say Parvati is a great winner of Survivor; she simply just got how to play the game well.
- Chris Daugherty (Season 9: Vanuatu)
– What makes Chris a wonderful winner of Survivor is the hustle he put into winning it all. Chris was the last member of his all-male tribe left in the game at final 7, making him a dead man walking. However, Chris managed to find his way into the womens’ hearts, as he famously said in a confessional, and clawed his way from the bottom to a power position, and he made it look so effortless. Chris had one hell of a good spirit to him, and even though he had to lie and backstab to sit at the final two, he showed how to work a bitter jury be being humble and gracious. I truly think Chris is over-looked in the grand scheme of Survivor greats, I think he played a marvelous game and should be remembered as such.
- Earl Cole (Season 14: Fiji)
– Earl had a pretty easy run of things in Fiji. He got in a great early alliance with Yau-Man, which helped him establish a strategic foothold in the game, and he was able to take advantage of the myriad of players in his season that just didn’t get the nuances of the game. Earl was the first unanimous winner of Survivor, and he truly did deserve it given the people he was sitting with at the end. Earl made Survivor look easy, which is something very few people have been able to do.
- Ethan Zohn (Season 3: Africa)
– I’m not sure if there’s been any winner of Survivor quite as likable as Ethan was in Africa. I always found this stat to be the most impressive about Ethan’s run; he never received a single vote against him. Ethan got in a tight alliance with Lex and Big Tom from day 1, and he stayed true to that alliance until the very end, which is quite admirable. The guy played the game the right way, he strategized, he fought for his team and for himself, and he did it all while keeping his dignity. Ethan was a fantastic Survivor winner!
- Denise Stapley (Season 25: Philippines)
– Denise holds an infamous distinction as the only person who went to every single tribal council during a season, and throughout all of her trips to Jeff Probst’s play land, she really managed to hone her Survivor skills. Denise played a quiet, yet assertive game, holding on and rising to the top of the sinking ship that was the Matsing tribe. Once the merge came around, she carefully maneuvered around the alliances that carried over from the other two tribes and worked at breaking down voting blocs to find a way into a majority position. Her greatest move, and the one that allowed her an easy victory, was when she turned on her day 1 ally Malcolm, who had just as good a case as she did if he made the final 3. Denise played to win the game, and she was victorious because she was able to adapt to the ebbs and flows of the game.
- Brian Heidik (Season 5: Thailand)
– Brian treated Survivor like a business trip (his words, not mine). The man was so cold and calculated about his approach to the game, maintaining a sensible alliance and keeping them from wavering with his steady leadership. If you really want to get a sense for how one can completely control and subvert the craziness of Survivor, look no further than Brian. He made the game so easy to control that it ended up being a rather boring and predictable season. The only real knock on Brian was that he did so poorly trying to get to know the minority alliance that he lost 3 votes and ended up turning what should’ve been a slam dunk win into a nail-bier. That’s what takes him from a top 5 winner and slots him at number 9 instead.
- Jeremy Collins (Season 13: Cambodia – Second Chance)
– Jeremy dominated Cambodia. In all senses of the word. The guy played a wonderful strategic game by just being himself, playing freely and openly with anyone and everyone. He eventually maneuvered himself into a solid alliance with Spencer and Tasha and somehow had both of them convinced to go to the final 3 together where only he had any friends left on the jury. His 10-0 unanimous win is one of the most decisive victories of all-time, and it’s difficult to find any real flaws in his game plan. The only problem with his win was how easy it was for him, but that’s to no fault of his own. He balled out, as he would say.
- Yul Kwon (Season 13: Cook Islands)
– Yul has got to be one of the smartest strategic players the game has ever seen. The guy found one of the earliest hidden immunity idols in Survivor, and did so with limited clues. Then he managed to use his idol to solidify his alliance, pulling one of the greatest Godfather moves in the shows history by dangling in front of Jonathan Penner’s face, essentially forcing him to rejoin his alliance. With that one move, Yul sealed his fate as one of the greatest strategists the game had seen, and he coasted to victory once he got the numbers. Well…maybe it wasn’t that simple, since Ozzy did grab 4 votes at the final tribal council, but that doesn’t really take much away from the brilliance of Yul’s game.
- Tyson Apostol (Season 27: Blood vs. Water)
– After two unsuccessful tries at winning Survivor, the third time was a charm for Tyson Apostol. The stars just sort of aligned for him in the Blood vs. Water season, and it was really thanks to his girlfriend Rachel getting voted out that he found enough focus to develop great strategy. Tyson, alongside his right hand man Gervase, managed to convince former winners Aras and Tina and their loved ones that they were with them, all the while they were plotting with the newbies to oust them from the game. I loved Tyson’s approach this season, it was surgical and intense, but he also stayed very true to himself while playing the game, which is exactly why he came out the victor ahead of Gervase and Monica. Tyson dominated his competition strategically, misleading them and convincing hem they were safe and in charge until it was too late for any of them to change their fate, and he gets a lot of props in my book for being dominant and entertaining.
- Richard Hatch (Season 1: Borneo)
– Survivor could have been a game solely based on merit, or athletic skills, or survival ability during season 1. There was no precedent for this game, and the 16 players on the cast were set with the task of defining how this game would be policed and rewarded. Richard hatch took it upon himself to define the game, to develop a strategy that would give him the greatest odds at being around to collect the million dollar prize. Richard helped develop the first voting bloc or alliance the game had seen, and the strategy paid off as his alliance outlasted the entire Pagong tribe. At the last immunity tribe, Hatch made another brilliant strategic call by stepping down from the challenge, causing Rudy and Kelly to feel like they would have to eliminate the other one because they were playing the hardest. Richard was ahead of his time in terms of Survivor strategy, he helped mould the game with his devious and self-serving plots, but one thing’s for certain; Survivor wouldn’t be iconic if not for Richard hatch. For that reason alone, he has to be considered a top 5 winner.
- Todd Herzog (Season 15: China)
– Todd is one of, if not the greatest schemer in Survivor history. His tribe-mate Jean-Robert prophetically told him just that the first day he met him, and it was a nice little clue in from production, urging us to watch Todd closely as the game went on. Todd was the master manipulator of the show, he made everyone like him and confide in him, which landed him idol clues and close alliances around every corner. He parlayed those clues into idols and parlayed those alliances to blindside people and lull others into false senses of security and so on and so forth. Basically, Todd worked over the entire cast of China, and put some punctuation on winning the game of Survivor. He’s one of the most interesting winners of all time for sure.
- Natalie Anderson (Season 29: San Juan Del Sur)
– Natalie was such a force to be reckoned with on her season. She played with her sister who was promptly voted out first, leaving her in a vulnerable and emotional spot from day 3 on. It could’ve sent her game in a tailspin, but it did the exact opposite; it gave her some real drive. Then, when her “alliance” voted out her closest ally Jeremy, Natalie went on to create one of the greatest revenge narratives the show has or may ever see again. Natalie kept her game to herself, played low-key and made everyone think she was going along with the orders of Missy and Jon, but secretly she was making small moves to set up the knockout blows later on. It was Natalie who sniffed out the move Reed and Alec were trying to pull on Jon, telling him to play his idol last minute, and she later intentionally voted Alec out when she was supposed to vote Keith, because Alec was closer with Jon. She played stupid when she had to, and she had Missy and Jon fooled into thinking they were in charge, until it was time for her to orchestrate Jon’s demise. Natalie’s revenge was sweet to watch, perfectly exacted, and should easily go down as one of the best power plays in Survivor history. Even though her season aired recently, I think Survivor history should eventually remember her as one of the best winners the series has seen.
- Tom Westman (Season 10: Palau)
– Tom was absolutely untouchable on Palau. He was the leader of his Koror tribe from the minute they were divided into tribes. And there really wasn’t any reason for anyone to question his leadership; his tribe outlasted the entire Ulong tribe until there was only one member left. But, Tom’s not one of the best winners solely because he was such a steady leader. Tom had a keen ability to adapt to his circumstances, and he was constantly one step ahead of everyone else who was threatening his place in the game. His day 1 alliance with Ian and Katie held firm until the end, and in a show of true strategic brilliance, he was able to make the goofy, light-heartened Ian into the bad guy, and got him to eventually crack under the pressure he applied on him as he stepped down from the final challenge on day 38. The way Tom psychologically man-handled Ian was fascinating and it cemented Tom’s place as one of the most dominating players to have ever played the game. He beat Katie easily at final tribal council to win the title of Sole Survivor, and it was probably the most decisive victory up until that point in survivor history. Tom is one of the iconic figures in the show’s history, the steady firefighter who lead his tribe to victory and stability and carefully played the social strategy of the game to always stay in a position of power. His win was never in doubt, from day 1 on really, and for that he has to be considered one of the best winners the show has ever seen.
- J.T. Thomas (Season 18: Tocantins)
– When one of the players in Survivor is quoted as saying he would play the game to ensure another person’s victory in the game, you really have to do a double take. Who on Earth could be so dominating at the game of survivor that people around them would lose sight of their games and bow down to their needs? The answer is J.T. Thomas. J.T. is arguably the most likable winner of all-time, the southern rancher with a big heart who no one could help but like. He was the leader and the heart of his tribe, and everyone lined up to align themselves with him. Even as the merge came, the leaders of the opposing tribe, Brendan, Coach, and Tyson, all put their games aside to try and play with J.T., who Coach deemed a noble warrior. And one by one Brendan, Tyson, and Coach were eliminated from the game, blinded by the charm of J.T., and by day 39 it was inevitable that J.T. was going to be the winner. He won the game unanimously, and there were barely any bad words for J.T. by any members of the jury at final tribal council. Everyone he played with seemed happy that he won the game, happy to give him the million dollars. J.T. is number one on my winner’s ranking because of his charm, because of his wonderful social strategy that truly was effortless. People gravitated to him and really just wanted him to win. I don’t think we’ll ever witness a more dominating performance on Survivor for as long as the show is running, and it was even more impressive by how effortless is truly looked. In my opinion, J.T. is the greatest Survivor winner in the 16 year history of the show