With the season finale of what has arguably been one of the best editions, Heroes vs. Villains, this Sunday night and after 20 seasons of cutthroat strategy and boneheaded mistakes, what better time than now to look back at some of the most influential players the game has ever seen. I based influence not exactly on if a person won or not, but how their gameplay has made an impact on all future editions of Survivor and on the contestants, for better or worse. While I did not rank these and decided to do the list chronologically, I believe in my heart that Richard Hatch is without a doubt the overall most influential player of all-time. If he had not won in that first season, the game of Survivor would have turned out completely different and the use of strategy would not be as evolved as it is right now at this point 20 seasons on.
Richard Hatch (Borneo, All-Stars)
Placed: 1st; 14th
He is the grandfather of Survivor strategy, the man who first coined the term "alliance," which is now as neccessary as fire to survive in this game. By getting the idea of gathering a group of people to all vote the same way, it would ensure that they would have strength in numbers to advance in the game. When I first started watching Survivor, I originally thought that it would be a game of strength and endurance, but Hatch reminded us that along with outplay and outlast, outwit is also apart of the Survivor motto. His voting bloc was so unthinkable at the time that the opposing Pagong tribe members were easily picked off one by one, spreading their votes everywhere instead of focused one member, which is now the usual course. If Richard's strategy did not earn him the million dollars in the end, the game of Survivor would look completely different.
Johnny "John" Carroll, Zoe Zanidakis, Tammy Leitner, Robert "General" DeCanio (Marquesas)
Placed: 9th, 8th, 7th, 6th
While no one can doubt the power of having a strong alliance in your corner, it cannot be overestimated, especially when you don't have the numbers. This alliance got a little too cocky during a challenge and made it clear there was a separation between them and the rest of the merged Soliantu tribe. The only problem was that there were five other players still in the game and this alliance of four did not try to bring anyone over to their side, confident of their place in the game. All future alliances now know that it doesn't mean anything to have a voting bloc unless the numbers are on your side. It also doesn't help to flaunt said alliance either, or you'll get picked off one after the other much like these four were. John, Zoe, Tammy and General all deserve a special slot together to themselves and provide a lesson to any future Survivors who think their alliance is in control of the game.
Rob Cesternino ( The Amazon)
Rob had a comfortable alliance with Alex, Heidi and Jenna. They were clearly in control of the game and likely would have made it to the final four. The only thing is that Alex had different plans and notified Rob that he would be going soon and wasn't in their final plans. Taking this information, Rob went to the other remaining tribe members of the merged Jacaré, who were on the outskirts of the group and prepared to be eliminated, and gathered them together to vote out Alex next. While he didn't win and he eventually turned on that new alliance, Rob quickly gained more control of the game then he already had. Even though he was in a strong alliance with Alex, he realized where he stood on the totem pole and turned on his group. Rob showed that while alliances will get you far, to get further in the game, you have to always keep your options open and not be deadlocked with a certain group. Turning on your own alliance was groundbreaking at the time, but now it's the norm.
Brian Heidik (Thailand)
While Thailand is generally considered one of the worst seasons in Survivor (it's host Jeff Probst's least favorite by far), there is still much to be learned. No one will ever assume that a tribe has merged until Probst says so thanks to Shii Ann's premature celebration, but Brian's gameplay throughout this season is something that is still utilized. By promising everyone in his alliance that he would take them to the final two, he made sure that he always had people in his pocket willing to vote whichever way he wanted. It's the kind of manipulative gameplay that could see diminishing returns in future seasons, but its effectiveness for other Survivors such as Todd in China and Russell in Samoa can't be overlooked.
Sandra Diaz-Twine (Pearl Islands, Heroes vs. Villains)
Placed: 1st; to be determined
Physically, Sandra is probably one of the weakest players even when it comes to challenges. Most people like that usually don't make it out of the merge, but Sandra employed a simple strategy throughout her winning season in Pearl Islands: she would vote for anyone as long as her neck wasn't on the chopping block. For someone who may not seem like much of a physical threat, it's still important that your mind at least stay in the game and Sandra was still cognizant of what went on. Even when the numbers of her original alliance dwindled, she still voted along with her nemesis Jonny Fairplay in order to get further. In Survivor, if you're slow to make a decision, you may find yourself a target and become considered unreliable. Sandra often showed litttle to no remorse over her decisions and rarely ever panicked during Pearl Islands. Also, any future eavesdroppers are indebted to her.
Chris Daughtery (Vanuatu)
Chris was the last remaining original member of the Lopevi after all the men had been eliminated in the merged Alinta tribe. In a season which separated the teams by gender, the odds looked even slimmer for Chris as the six Yasur women outnumbered the men and systematically voted them out. Chris serves as inspiration to all future contestants who think that there is no hope. He was able to play the women against each other and win the season with a final jury vote of 5-2. Once the numbers start to dwindle, everyone starts to realize where their place in the ranking is and in order to proceed in the game, a person might have to flip. Chris used this to his advantage like no other Survivor before him and proved that no matter how outnumbered you may be, there will usually be someone who would rather take 3rd place over 6th place.
Tom Westman (Palau)
Sometimes being popular in this game isn't all it's cracked up to be. Sometimes it can win you a million dollars. For those foolish enough to take someone that everyone likes to the end, losing the game could be the end result. Tom was in a solid alliance all season long and had the pleasure of rarely going to tribal council since his tribe completely dominated at immunity challenges. During Koror's winning streak, Tom became known as the leader of his tribe and often provided food for everyone while also being a hard worker at camp. Tom garnered so much respect that when his once-solid alliance member, Ian, was revealed as being deceptive, he dropped out of the final immunity challenge after 12 hours to give Tom the idol by default. As a result, Tom won by a jury vote of 6-1. Future nice guys Earl from Fiji, Bob from Gabon and J.T. in Tocantins all turned likeability into a million dollars.
Parvati Shallow (Cook Islands, Micronesia, Heroes vs. Villains)
Placed: 6th; 1st; to be determined
Without a doubt, one of the greatest contestants to ever play this game. If she makes it to the final jury vote in the current season of Heroes vs. Villains, I would officially call her the greatest. She has a feel for the game strategically that is matched by very few. She knows who to align with, who to blindside and when to blindside them. On Heroes vs. Villains, Parvati was an early target and has remained one throughout mainly because of her history in the game and her wits. There isn't really anything revolutionary about Parvati's gameplay—there have been cunning contestants before, players who have flirted and used their beauty to an advantage and players who have joined strong alliances—but anyone would be a fool to not take notice of how well she's played the game and should jot down a few notes if they hope to make it far.
Yau-Man (Fiji, Micronesia)
Placed: 4th; 18th
When Yau-Man first found the hidden immunity idol back at his camp, he got one helluva crazy idea: why not create a fake idol? Made out of a coconut shell with a painted face on it and with the letters "I.I." cleverly placed (it stood for "Immunity Idol), Yau-Man buried the idol in the exact spot where he discovered the real one in the hopes that someone else would falsely believe that they had the idol. While no one found the fake idol on Fiji, future seasons such as China and Gabon would show people using a fake idol at tribal council to very hilarious results. You can bet that anyone else who creates a fake idol will be thinking of Yau-Man as they construct it.
Russell Hantz (Samoa, Heroes vs. Villains)
While Russell is a great, if often times, brute strategist, he has made this list for different reasons. During his time on Samoa, Russell was a hidden immunity idol magnet. The only thing is that he found them without any clues. His success with finding the idols has led the producers of the show to change how they place hidden immunity idols for future editions, now referring to it as "the Russell Factor," according to Jeff Probst. I'm pretty sure Russell would prefer the title of sole survivor (and he may still get that chance since he is still in the game as of now), but he should be able to take solace that he has left his mark on the game of Survivor forever.