Season 1 (Borneo): Richard
The original Survivor was perhaps the most unapologetic in his duplicitous machinations, but he won anyway. Though Sue’s bizarre “I would not give you a drink” jury tirade against Kelly may have helped Richard a little, his win was mostly a result of his inarguable assertion to the jury that he played the game better than anyone. That said, never again would someone win Survivor without making even a meager attempt to lay on the charm and pretend to be a nice guy (see Brian below). Extra credit to Richard for founding the now-essential Survivor “alliance” concept.
Season 2 (Australia): TinaTina’s win boiled down to this: using her aw-shucks, down-home maternal aura to convince runner-up Colby to bring her to the Final Two rather than unlikable Keith, perhaps the show’s most vivid example of how strategically important it is for the final immunity winner to choose wisely who he/she brings to the Final Two. Colby’s inexplicable decision may have preserved his Texan honor (he felt loyalty to Tina) but it left his bank account empty. Not to deny Tina’s remarkable powers of persuasion or sully her win, but everyone knows Colby should have won.
Season 3 (Africa): EthanIn a first for the show, the final individual immunity winner didn’t win the game. Runner-up Kim won final individual immunity, but she chose to take with her to the Final Two eventual winner Ethan rather than tattooed Lex. In her defense, both Ethan and Lex were equally likable, so it’s possible Kim was doomed either way. Regardless, Ethan succeeded in becoming the first “nice guy” to win Survivor (the anti-Richard, as it were), which he claimed was his intention all along.
Season 4 (Marquesas): VecepiaVecepia was perhaps the first instance of an “under the radar” winner, that random contestant everyone suddenly realizes never got voted off. Did you even remember that Vecepia won? Me neither. So how does one fly “under the radar” exactly? 1) Contribute enough in the challenges and at camp so that you don’t seem lazy and useless, but 2) avoid doing too much so you don’t get labeled a “threat” and risk getting voted off. It’s a tough line to walk and it always seems to be the unassuming players like Vecepia (or Amber below) who do it best. In the end, Vecepia’s win was cemented by that classic Survivor element: the “Final Immunity Deal.” Here, Vecepia and Neleh (another “under the radar” girl) cut a deal during the final individual immunity challenge – Vecepia lets Neleh win immunity, Neleh brings Vecepia to Final Two. Thus, the more deserving and likable competitor (Kathy) – and a likely winner – was cut out.
Season 5 (Thailand): Brian
Brian out-Richarded Richard in the lying and manipulating department, making promises, double-dealing at every turn, telling everyone what they wanted to hear. How he kept it all straight in his head is a feat in and of itself. But the most remarkable aspect to Brian’s game was that he maintained such a charming façade, smooth talking everyone. By the time his fellow contestants began to realize Brian’s true colors, it was too late. Brian’s dirty pool led to a close vote: he beat runner-up Clay by a 4-3 score. As a footnote, Jeff Probst has said Thailand’s Final Four – Brian, Clay, Helen, and Jan – were the most unlikable of any season to date.
Season 6 (The Amazon): Jenna
Playboy found a centerfold in 21-year-old winner Jenna, who wisely brought with her to the Final Two decidedly creepy runner-up Matthew, who not only looked a bit wild-eyed to begin with but who liked to sit around and sharpen his machete late in the game. Picking Matthew over the charming wise-ass Rob was an easy choice, again pointing out the value in choosing wisely who you bring the Final Two, as Jenna’s lopsided 6-1 victory can attest.
Season 7 (Pearl Islands): SandraIn a season that featured the show’s most likable hero (the cuddly, heart-on-his-sleeve Rupert) and shameless villain (the proudly horrible “Johnny Fairplay” who made everyone think his grandmother died just so he could win their sympathy), it was another “under the radar” contestant that won. Sandra was amusingly sassy and cunning, but in the end her victory came down to runner-up Lill’s missed opportunity to bring with her the Final Two a more unlikable tribemate. In this case, the bewildered Lill – who had been voted out of the game earlier in the season only to return for an undeserved second chance via the season’s strange Outcast tribe gimmick – won the final immunity. But rather than take with her to the Final Two the hated Johnny Fairplay, she rolled the dice on spunky Sandra (who lobbied hard for Lill’s vote, playing the “I’m a mother” card)... and lost in a 6-1 landslide
Season 8 (All-Stars): Amber
The argument can be made that Amber was the most undeserving winner ever because it was her island boyfriend Boston Rob that dominated this season from start to finish. On the other hand, it can be argued that Amber was the most deserving winner ever because she employed the “Hitch Yourself to a Strong Player” strategy better than anyone. Seeing Boston Rob steamroll his fellow contestants was a thing of beauty: they knew he was doing it from almost the very beginning, but were helpless to stop him. The most poignant example of this was poor Lex, who spared Amber at Boston Rob’s request only to be voted out the next week. Ouch. Amber beat Boston Rob by a 4-3 squeaker (showing how divided juries can be when picking between Amber’s benign “under the radar” approach and Boston Rob’s aggressive “steamroll” approach). But it’s all moot anyway since they ended up getting married.
Season 9 (Vanuatu): Chris
Chris was a classic Survivor winner in the mold of Richard and Brian, ruthlessly backstabbing everyone while keeping a laid-back smile on his face. The more interesting wrinkle here is that Chris beat runner-up Twila, who seemed to be much more likable at first but who fell victim to a strange backlash because she lied to another player while swearing on her son’s life. This outrage was apparently too much for the jury to handle (they voted for Chris 5-2), even though any rational person could see that Twila’s one clumsy lie was nothing compared to the string of polished lies Chris habitually spun. Note that this irrational backlash seems to have been exactly what Chris was counting on, which is why he brought Twila with him to the Final Two instead of the more affable, well-liked Scout.
Season 10 (Palau): TomTom was a game leader from the outset, powering Koror’s domination over the hapless Ulong tribe. In most seasons, Tom would be an obvious target. But Tom was such a “steamroller” in the vein of Boston Rob that he managed to persevere through a combination of determination and smooth talking. What would have happened had Tom gone against Ian (the game’s other strong player) in the Final Two is anyone’s guess, although Ian’s clean-cut image had taken a hit late in the game. But with Ian forfeiting final immunity (to win back Tom’s friendship), it was “under the radar” Katie who went to the Final Two with Tom. For the jury, Tom played the Richard card – I deserve this because I’m here and you’re not – but he did so humbly, whereas whiny Katie lacked much in the way of tact. End result: a win for Tom, perhaps the show’s most deserving and likable winner ever.