Get Ready for ‘Winners At War’ As Survivor Kicks Off Its 20th Anniversary Season!

“Excitement” doesn’t quite do justice to how I’m feeling right now. We are literally just days away from the beginning on not just Survivor‘s 40th (!!!) and 20th-Anniversary Season, but the occasion is being celebrated with the long-awaited, highly-anticipated “all winners” season. Yes, “Survivor: Winners At War” will feature 20 previous Sole Survivors all vying not only for the increased TWO million dollar prize, but for the unprecedented title of “Best of the Best.”

I’m shaking just thinking about this season, and I can’t wait to bring you this special look ahead (and a look back) to the best Reality Competition Show that there ever was, or ever will be. There’s lots to get to, not just the new twists that Season 40 has in store (Fire Tokens???), but we’re going to take a look at each of the 20 returning previous winners and where they “rank” on my all-time list heading into this season…and while I’m super-ecstatic as to the 20 winners that ARE returning, we’ll also examine the ones that were left out, and whose legacies are at stake the most.

If you have “tuned out” of Survivor over the years – especially after the exhausting Season 39 this past Fall – you will WANT TO GET BACK INTO IT THIS SEASON! I’ll be right here Recapping the entire Season 40, and am happy to once again have Survivor Legend and two-time player Erik Reichenbach on-board as well contributing his unique Survivor artwork and creativity each and every week…just wait what he drew up for this special “pre-season” look ahead!

Let’s get to it, shall we?


Get Ready for ‘Winners At War’ As Survivor Kicks Off Its 20th Anniversary Season!

I’m so happy to be back, and if this is your first-time reading this column, here’s a bit of background on myself and on Survivor. Survivor of course, absolutely changed the landscape of Television and even our culture, when it debuted in the Summer of the year 2000. Yes, to answer the top question I get among those that don’t watch the show, Survivor IS not only still on the air, but it’s thriving: While its overall numbers have deflated tremendously from those early seasons (the Season 1 Finale had 51.7 million viewers, with Nielson reporting that 125 million watched at least some part of the Finale Episode), the show is still the #1 show on CBS in the key 18-49 demographic. And as many of you know, there aren’t too many shows with a stronger social media presence or fan-base.

As for me, I’ve watched every single episode from the beginning, and am proud to be covering Survivor professionally now into my 20th season (I began originally with Season 20, “Heroes vs. Villains.” I’ve been a guest on Rob Cesternino‘s “Rob Has A Podcast,” and was on the Executive Committee that helped elect all of the inductees in Gordon Holmes and XfinityTV’s official “Survivor Hall of Fame.” I’ve interviewed everyone from Richard Hatch to Sandra to Boston Rob to Russell Hantz…heck, if they appeared anytime after Season 20 or are considered Legends of the Game, I’ve probably interviewed them at some time or another. Hatch in fact, gave me one of his first post-legal-trouble interviews back in 2010. My “FilmSurvivor Podcast” is still around (and available on iTunes and Podbean) however with the  “Edge of Extinction” twist having ended all press exit interviews (other than with the really big dogs like Cesternino, Holmes or EW’s Dalton Ross), I only sporadically post new episodes. And oh yeah, I’m a film critic and TV personality here in the Detroit area (more on that part of things at the very bottom of this article).

With that out of the way, you should also know that Season 40, “Winners At War,” premieres on CBS on Wednesday, Feb. 12 at 8 pm (EST), but CBS will also be airing a “Retrospective Special” episode this Wednesday at the same time. It plans to take a look back and celebrate Survivor’s 40-season run, and set the stage for the upcoming season.

Speaking of setting the stage, before we dive in to each of the winners, let’s go over what we know about Season 40!

Get Ready for ‘Winners At War’ As Survivor Kicks Off Its 20th Anniversary Season!


The Edge of Extinction is Back. If there’s any disappointed feeling mixed in with the anticipation of Season 40, it’s got to be because we know that they brought back the controversial Edge of Extinction twist…a twist that produced the game’s first-ever winner to have had his torch snuffed during the season (Chris Underwood won Season 38 after getting voted out on Day 8 and lasting 26 days on The Edge…he wasn’t included in this “Winners At War” cast). Surely, the idea in bringing it back had to do with wooing some of these previous winners to return to the game…it’s a bit more enticing for a huge target like, say, Boston Rob or Parvati, to sign-up knowing that they will have a chance to compete still despite leaving the “game” early on…or for any winner to face the embarrassment of getting voted out first and being eliminated outright with a tainted legacy.

What is a bit strange (and we’ll have to see how this plays out) is that it’s assumed that all 20 winners KNOW about this twist going into the game…part of what made the original twist work was that the players in the game had no idea that the Edge of Extinction even existed until mid-way into the game. How will this change strategy? Will players willingly rather navigate the game on the Edge as opposed to lying and back-stabbing back on the island?

Perhaps the saving grace is that the Edge of Extinction this season will work a bit different than in Season 38, namely due to the new “bartering system” that will be introduced that will turn the game on its head…

Get Ready for ‘Winners At War’ As Survivor Kicks Off Its 20th Anniversary Season!

Introducing “Fire Tokens.” Clearly the biggest twist this year has to do with a new system that will be introduced. Every player begins the game with one Token, and if you are voted out of the game, you must “bequeath” all of your Tokens to a player still in the game. So while the players “in the game” will have access to Fire Tokens, will be able to presumably win them and/or find them as the game progresses, the players on the Edge will be able to collect different “advantages.” These advantages are worthless to them on the Edge, as they can only be played “in the game,” so between the advantages on the Edge and the Fire Tokens in the game, a bartering system will take place, and a new complex layer of strategy will be introduced. Do I give my 10 Fire Tokens to Boston Rob who is on the Edge of Extinction, knowing that if he returns to the game he will be even more powerful? Is it worth it to equip him with Tokens for an advantage that can help me right now? The catch is that those on the Edge do NOT know who they are dealing with, or how many Tokens each player has.

In addition, Fire Tokens can be used in-game to receive food, comfort or other advantages.

What are your initial thoughts on this game-changing Fire Token twist?

Get Ready for ‘Winners At War’ As Survivor Kicks Off Its 20th Anniversary Season!



Now let the fun (and the debates) begin! For those of you who DO follow my Survivor coverage, you know that I usually end each season with an updated list of my “All-Time Survivor Winners.” I have always been in the camp that ranking Survivor Winners is not meant to “take away” or slight any of the winning seasons: Each one of these winners was able to be the BEST at their particular season, given their circumstances and the twists that were a part of their season (yes, even Chris Underwood deserves credit despite my dislike for his season’s twist…the fact that the Edge of Extinction existed however does not mean that somehow Chris is responsible for this…he did what he had to do in order to win HIS particular season).

So this year, I saved my list until now…here is my take on each of this season’s 20 former winners, listed in the order of how I had them ranked on my List. Stay around until the end, because we’re also going to cover those winners that are NOT participating this season, and there are a few humongous, egregious omissions if we’re honestly going to consider this season the “Best of the Best.”

Here goes, your winners, in my order! And check out the individual head-shots drawn by Erik Reichenbach and available on his site!

Get Ready for ‘Winners At War’ As Survivor Kicks Off Its 20th Anniversary Season!


Age: 44

My Overall Winner Rank: #1

The Game’s Only Two-Time Winner: “Survivor: Pearl Islands” (Season 7) and “Survivor: Heroes vs. Villains” (Season 20)

Also played on: “Survivor: Game Changers” (Season 34) where she finished 15/20, was a non-player “Mentor” on “Survivor: Island of the Idols” (Season 39)

Sandra won the game not once, but twice. In my mind, there is no better or clearer argument. It is hard to debate against the cold hard fact that Sandra is the only Survivor to have ever won the game twice, yet after this season she will either share this title or will put EVERY single debate to rest by becoming the only person to win THREE times.

Her wins cannot be called a fluke, as she won in two different seasons, with two different groups of people. Even Richard, even Rob, couldn’t win twice. Nobody has, which by default puts Sandra in a league of her own. Is her strategy of “anybody but me” the key to winning Survivor? Only partially. It basically comes down to knowing, and using, your strengths. And no, her losing during “Game Changers” does not taint or tarnish the Queen’s legacy.

She is not a physical threat, so is not often targeted early. She has a rare quality (Hatch and Rob had it too) where she knows when to speak, and also knows when not to. Information is power in Survivor, and her tribe mates were always kept on a “need to know” basis. She also possesses a strong ability to sniff people out, like she did with Russell very early on in Heroes vs. Villains. Until another player wins twice, it is hard to argue against calling Sandra the Queen…and the top Survivor to have ever played the game.

Winners at War Outlook: Will these other winners – all in their own minds coming in wanting to leave their own mark as “the best to play the game” – really allow Sandra to become the game’s only three-time winner? To me, her legacy is already cemented, and she has nothing left to prove…but she probably is the least likely candidate to win Season 40.

Get Ready for ‘Winners At War’ As Survivor Kicks Off Its 20th Anniversary Season!


Age: 43

My Overall Winner Rank: #2

Winning Season: “Survivor: Redemption Island” (Season 22)

Also played on: “Survivor: Marquesas” (Season 4) where he finished 10/16, “Survivor: All-Stars” (Season 8) where he finished 2nd, “Survivor: Heroes vs. Villains” (Season 20) where he finished 13/20, was a non-player “Mentor” on “Survivor: Island of the Idols” (Season 39)

Dominant. Absolutely masterful. There is no better way to refer to Boston Rob‘s performance during his winning season. All winners require a degree of luck (can you imagine of Rob had started off on Zapatera instead of Ometepe?) but Rob re-defined what it meant to play a “social game.” Others described his control over his alliance as “cult-like” and indeed he brought a Final 6 with him to the end, all of which firmly believed that Rob was taking them with him to the end. Even that phrase – “taking them” – shows the control Rob had… nobody was taking Rob with, he was “taking them.” He kept control of the game by constantly checking in, and not allowing opportunities for his alliance to discuss things with one another. He made all the right moves, said all the right things. He simply put on the best strategic performance the game has ever seen.

Critics will point out that at the time Rob played, he was also the only person ever to have played the game four times. He arguably should be a two-time winner if you consider that he lost to a bitter “All-Stars” jury…but that his biggest win to date was that he lost that season to his future wife Amber. He could have been a force on “Heroes vs. Villains” if it wasn’t for that opposing force, Russell Hantz (and a goofy, inexplicable vote from future-winner Tyson). His resumé puts him nearly in a league of his own. So what hasn’t he done that keeps him from being the best winner in history? See #1.

Winners at War Outlook: There is no bigger name, so therefore no bigger threat in the game, than Boston Rob. Oddly, he comes into the game with several ties, none more so than the fact that his wife, Amber, is also in the game. I see no scenario where Boston Rob wins Winners at War, but man if he did? Knock down all the other faces on your Survivor Mt. Rushmore, because he would be bestowed as the Grand Champion of the game, and his name would live in infamy, even more than it already does.

Get Ready for ‘Winners At War’ As Survivor Kicks Off Its 20th Anniversary Season!


Age: 36

My Overall Winner Rank: #5

Winning Season: “Survivor: One World” (Season 24)

2013 Survivor Hall of Fame inductee Kim Spradlin (now Kim Spradlin-Wolfe) is an example of an ideal triple-threat – with a strong social, physical and strategic acumen – and cruised to victory like few have ever done in the show’s history. Like Yul, she found an Immunity Idol early on and never found a need to play it. Like Todd, she knew how to read the jury to tell them what they wanted to hear. Most impressive at all, she managed to win by taking two other respectable players with her to the end in Sabrina and Chelsea, and she still won. Along the way she won four individual challenges tying her all-time among female players with Jenna Morasca (Amazon) and Kelly Wigglesworth (Borneo). She made the incredibly complex game of Survivor look easy. As a first-time player, she played one of the best games a woman has ever played, although her understated style also resulted in a boring run of episodes down the stretch. Boring to an audience salivating for drama, but still about as near-perfect of a game that one can play.

Winners at War Outlook: Kim’s return is definitely one that fans have been salivating for, as she’s considered one of the best ever to play. But even so, there are bigger names in the mix this year, like Parvati and Sandra, and her season was far enough behind us that other more recent females like Sarah Lacina, seem to be bigger pre-season threats. Kim has exactly what it takes to win this game again, and she’s going to be a major factor this season.

Get Ready for ‘Winners At War’ As Survivor Kicks Off Its 20th Anniversary Season!


Age: 36

My Overall Winner Rank: #5

Winning Season: “Survivor: Micronesia” (Season 16)

Also played on: “Survivor: Cook Islands” (Season 13) where she finished 6/20, “Survivor: Heroes vs. Villains” (Season 20) where she finished 2/20

Parvati, in her second (winning) season, was masterful at keeping together her “girl-power” alliance. Her best move was the Ozzy blindside, one of the best in history. She was also up against Amanda in the end, which is a sure-fire way to win the votes. But Parvati is without a doubt one of the best female competitors the show has ever seen and had she been able to sneak some votes away from Sandra during “Heroes vs. Villains,” it could be Parvati who is known as the greatest player ever. She is definitely one of them.

Winners at War Outlook: Another “staple” as to players that NEEDED to be a part of “Winners at War,” Parvati’s reputation may precede her. Nobody thought she would play again, now married (to former Survivor: Samoa contestant, John Fincher) and with a baby, Parvati has nothing to prove to the Survivor masses, which maybe makes her inclusion more dangerous. Parvati of course, nearly won “Heroes vs. Villains” coming in with the same reputation, and still managed to get to the very end. Don’t sleep on Parvati!

Get Ready for ‘Winners At War’ As Survivor Kicks Off Its 20th Anniversary Season!


Age: 44

My Overall Winner Rank: #9

Winning Season: “Survivor: Cook Islands” (Season 13)

Yul Kwon was intelligent, calculating, and well liked by his tribe – a rare mix for a Survivor winner. He had an Immunity Idol, yet never had to play it. His own tribe called him “Ringleader,” yet he went to the end and won. He is the rare Survivor winner who was well-liked despite the strategic moves he made and he was ultimately rewarded for his hard strategic game play. He is the text-book definition of the Survivor “triple-threat”: a strong social, strategic and physical specimen.

Winners at War Outlook: Yul is one of the most respected individuals ever to win, and it is so amazing to know he’s returning. Of all of the returning winners, Yul may at first glance be seen as one of the best physical specimens out there, which may or may not make him an easy early target. Let’s not forget that he has original season ties with Parvati which may help him at some point. Yul has a lot to prove, especially to younger Survivor fans who may not even remember him. Can this “old-schooler” hang with the big boys, or was his win in a bygone era?

Get Ready for ‘Winners At War’ As Survivor Kicks Off Its 20th Anniversary Season!


Age: 39

My Overall Winner Rank: #10

Winning Season: “Survivor: Blood vs. Water” (Season 27)

Also played on: “Survivor: Tocantins” (Season 18) where he finished 8/16, “Survivor: Heroes vs. Villains” (Season 20) where he finished 15/20

Tyson Apostol, in his third try at the game, put in one heck of a performance. He gets kudos for winning the strategically rejuvenated “loved ones” season, the first of its kind. He came in a very big target but was able to shift focus away from him. He found two hidden Idols and controlled the game. Tyson ran into a bit of trouble when he had to draw rocks to stay in the game, but fate was on his side. Down the stretch, he won the last two Immunity challenges when he had to and won in a convincing 7-1-0 vote. His game was not without hiccups (he unnecessarily played a hidden Idol and drawing a rock isn’t an ideal way to advance), but it was a powerful strategic performance in a season like none other.

Winners at War Outlook: Tyson also owns one of the biggest flubs in Survivor history, when he inexplicably threw a vote away during “Heroes vs. Villains,” leading to his own demise. Can Boston Rob – or anyone out there for that matter – put their trust in him this time around? He’s a scary presence in a game full of them, but the last time Tyson played with returning All-Stars, he showed his strategic weaknesses. It’ll be interesting to see how he manages things this time around.

Get Ready for ‘Winners At War’ As Survivor Kicks Off Its 20th Anniversary Season!


Age: 35

My Overall Winner Rank: #11

Winning Season: “Survivor: Ghost Island” (Season 36)

Wendell is one of the coolest, calmest cats ever to dominate the game. An emerging theme in recent seasons, Wendell benefited greatly by being on a winning tribe early in the game, and it’s there that he formed a bond with “The Dom-Father” Domenick Abbate. Each with an Idol in their possession, they would go on to control the game all the way to the end. But it was by design that Wendell played a “quieter” game than the more boisterous and animated Dom. While Dom was out-front, Wendell was building relationships that would ultimately crown him the winner.

Winners at War Outlook: Wendell possesses great in-game awareness and there wasn’t a soul in the game the first time around that didn’t like or respect Wendell, even when he was just as responsible for slitting throats as Dom was. Dom may be the most qualified player ever to lose the game, but Wendell deserves even more kudos for attaching himself to Dom and somehow, someway coming out on top. Heck, Wendell is so laid-back, that he actually won a third Individual Immunity Challenge, but simply forgot to mention to Probst that he had finished his puzzle. He’s a physical threat, he’s mentally strong and the game has never witnessed such a calming presence. While most players battle paranoia increasingly throughout the game, Wendell never sweat the small stuff, and even though his Final Tribal Council performance wasn’t the strongest we’ve seen, Wendell deserves to be included in the rare air of upper echelon Survivor winners…translation: He’s a front-runner to me to win this time around as well.

Get Ready for ‘Winners At War’ As Survivor Kicks Off Its 20th Anniversary Season!


Age: 41

My Overall Winner Rank: #12

Winning Season: “Survivor: Cambodia” (Season 31)

Also played on: “Survivor: San Juan del Sur” (Season 29) where he finished 10/18

When looking at Jeremy‘s game, the most impressive feat was who he was up against: a cast of all-returning players voted in by the fans and given a second chance at the game. Still, he turned in a dominating performance. His game was the third ever Survivor “perfect game” in that he won by unanimous jury vote and had no votes cast against him the entire game… but his perfect game comes with an asterisk, because he did have three votes against him that were negated by one of the two hidden Idols he had found. But Jeremy relied heavily on strong players around him, instead of really willing his way to the end on his own. He second-guessed several decisions he made (like voting out Joe Anglim) and was almost done in by Kimmi Kappenberg, only to be saved by his alliance. He was never in any real danger save for that vote, and while he was a master of subtle strategic game-play this season – in a cast full of “go big or go home” players – he also benefited greatly from a strong initial tribe, the luck of the draw (his main alliance stuck together even through several early tribe swaps) and by surrounding himself with other strong players. For me, a great, awesome performance that falls just shy of the Top 10 of all time.

Winners at War Outlook: Jeremy enters as a “wild card” for me, and a player that once again could go far or could be targeted early if he comes in too hot.

Get Ready for ‘Winners At War’ As Survivor Kicks Off Its 20th Anniversary Season!


Age: 34

My Overall Winner Rank: #13

Winning Season: “Survivor: Game Changers” (Season 34)

Also played on: “Survivor: Cagayan” (Season 28) where she finished 11/18

Good cop to “bad” cop, there is definitely a lot to like about Sarah‘s game, and it has to be factored in that she was playing among some of the all-time greats of Survivor. She was determined to play a more cutthroat game her second-time out, and boy did she ever. She made big, bold moves and swayed the game in her direction. She had a great social game, but it was helped greatly by the fact that she won the first five tribal Challenges, and didn’t have to go to a Tribal Council until Day 16. Her in-game social awareness was good but not great, as she mistakenly put all of her trust in Tai, who nearly sent her home had Cirie not intervened. But Sarah was unapologetic in her actions and had awareness in other ways, like when she spotted and nabbed the Secret Advantage right out from underneath Michaela during a Challenge. She decided at every turn to “play the game” instead of standing pat. It worked out for her in the end, and despite never having won an Individual Immunity, Sarah’s win was among the best female performances of all-time, especially in a returnee season.

Winners at War Outlook: Her last time out, Sarah decided at every turn to “play the game” instead of standing pat. It worked out for her in the end, and despite never having won an Individual Immunity, Sarah’s win was among the best female performances of all-time, especially in a returnee season…that’s why it’s no surprise that according to other pre-season interviews, Sarah seems to be one of the biggest perceived threats entering this season, which means she is going to really have an uphill battle.

Get Ready for ‘Winners At War’ As Survivor Kicks Off Its 20th Anniversary Season!


Age: 28

My Overall Winner Rank: #14

Winning Season: “Survivor: Millennials vs Gen-X” (Season 33)

Adam came out on top of what was one of the most competitive group of ballers ever assembled on Survivor. His was an emotional journey, but when it came to the game of Survivor, he was all business. Adam had the unique ability to relate to even his enemies, and his brotherly love-hate relationship with arch nemesis Jay stands as a great testament to Adam’s social game. That being said, Adam did find himself on the wrong end of several votes, and post-merge he had seemed to have burn a lot of bridges. But he ultimately navigated his way through the game by adapting and positioning himself perfectly behind other, bigger, threats. He found a few hidden Idols, but played them at incorrect times in incorrect ways.  Yes, Adam became only the fifth person in Survivor history to win by unanimous vote, but his game was far from perfect, and of the other unanimous winners, Adam received the most votes against him out of them all. At the time of his win, Adam became the youngest winner ever, and when you consider who he was up against and the season that he played in, Adam definitely deserves upper echelon Winner status.

Winners at War Outlook: Adam came out on top of a season that pitted generations against each other, but now the ultimate generational test is in front of him: Can this “new-school” Survivor winner hang with the best “old school” players the game has ever seen? Adam surely may come in underestimated given that he is the youngest member of this current cast, but that’d be a mistake.

Get Ready for ‘Winners At War’ As Survivor Kicks Off Its 20th Anniversary Season!


Age: 28

My Overall Winner Rank: #15

Winning Season: “Survivor: David vs. Goliath” (Season 37)

“Kentucky” Nick played a very interesting game, one that is a little hard to judge. On one hand, he played a “pedal-to-the-metal” game and proved to be a great strategic and social threat. He orchestrated a huge blindside post-merge that propelled him on-ward, and he ended up winning the final three Immunity Challenges that earned him a spot in front of the jury. He did all this, without receiving a single vote against him, falling short of the Survivor “perfect game” by losing three votes at the Final Tribal Council.

He also had a great story, was shown to be selfless at times, and if they ever did another “Hero” season, Nick would be ideal. So why isn’t Nick ranked higher? Despite all he did accomplish in the game (and it was a lot), Nick also seemed to be on the outside of several votes down the stretch and didn’t really control the game like other winners have. Ironically Nick would have and SHOULD have been the first boot, had not his fellow cast mate Pat had a freak accident while being transported back to shore from a challenge, which led to his medical evacuation. Nick fought from that point onward, for sure, but benefited greatly from the “Survivor Gods” early and often. Nick though, also deserves credit for winning a season that was chock-full of “next-level” players who were all in it to win it…so considering who he won against, that also moved Nick up a few spots.

Winners at War Outlook: Nick is also young, but his game is a bit more fresh in the minds of others than that of Adam Klein’s or some of the others. In fact, he’s the most recent winner of all the returnees this season. Given his “honorable” game the last time out, I could see him pegged early-on by some of the “bigger” players as someone to possibly align with, knowing that Nick might stay loyal. He’s one that could slip through unnoticed…remember, this guy was a “David” that cut down many a “Goliath” his first time out. I see Nick possibly doing it again, if he comes in with the confidence that he belongs out there.

Get Ready for ‘Winners At War’ As Survivor Kicks Off Its 20th Anniversary Season!


Age: 45

My Overall Winner Rank: #17

Winning Season: “Survivor: Cagayan” (Season 28)

Also played on: “Survivor: Game Changers” (Season 34) where he finished 19/20

Because of the uber-agressive style that Tony brings, it’s an absolute miracle that he was able to win. He was helped with a lot of luck along the way, despite his daring, ballsy and often-hilarious “strategies” like his famous “spy shack.”

Winners at War Outlook: Tony is one player that I think has too big a reputation to really compete this season…every season has players that are “good for TV” but that have no real shot of winning, and despite being a previous winner, I think Tony fills this “entertainment” slot for this season. Will anybody really align and stake their game on Tony? I don’t think so, not this group of savage and savvy players. Fun fact: Tony has now played all three of his Survivor seasons with Sarah Lacina…and at age 45, is the oldest male contestant this season.

Get Ready for ‘Winners At War’ As Survivor Kicks Off Its 20th Anniversary Season!


Age: 28

My Overall Winner Rank: #18

Winning Season: “Survivor: San Juan del Sur” (Season 29)

Natalie has the distinction – along with her twin sister Nadiya – of being the first “The Amazing Race” contestants to appear on “Survivor.” Despite Nadiya getting voted out first during her season, Natalie played a fantastic under-the-radar game as the other pairs ate each other alive. Tied with fellow winner Michele Fitzgerald, Natalie holds the record for most challenge wins (tribal and individual) for a female Sole Survivor. And despite not winning her season unanimously, she did reach the Final Tribal Council without receiving a single vote against her.

Winners at War Outlook: Natalie is one to watch, because her name alone doesn’t strike fear into the heart of these other players. I can see Natalie going far and further carving out a name for herself in the Survivor-sphere, with a solid “Winners at War” performance.

Get Ready for ‘Winners At War’ As Survivor Kicks Off Its 20th Anniversary Season!


Age: 49

My Overall Winner Rank: #20

Winning Season: “Survivor: Philippines” (Season 25)

Denise is the oldest contestant this season, the oldest female Sole Survivor to win (at age 41 when she won) and maybe the most dangerously underrated. And talk about a fighter…how’s this for some tough stats on Denise: She’s the only player to EVER attend every single Tribal Council throughout an entire season, and she’s also the only player EVER to have officially reached the merge without ever having been immune in any way, shape or form. Like, wow.

Winners at War Outlook: Denise is a viable option to win this game, as “women of a certain age” tend to do much better than other demographics on Survivor…this bodes well for her, because if she is allowed to last deep into the game, she could turn into a severe physical threat. She clearly was never considered a threat her original season, so Denise will have lots to prove now that she’s competing in the championship circuit.

Get Ready for ‘Winners At War’ As Survivor Kicks Off Its 20th Anniversary Season!


Age: 36

My Overall Winner Rank: #21

Winning Season: “Survivor: Heroes vs. Healers vs. Hustlers” (Season 35)

It is not easy to win the game of Survivor, especially when you are targeted as the “leader” or “king” early in the game…it rarely, if ever, has happened. Ben‘s win will always be mentioned as controversial, with some fans calling BS on the fact that he found three Immunity Idols late in the game, and that the Final Four fire-making twist ended up working out in his favor. Add to this, Ben didn’t win a single Individual Immunity Challenge himself, and also received a record-number of votes against (11) for a Sole Survivor. This being said, few other winners have willed themselves to the end playing such a bold and “out front” game, and the other players had every chance to keep an eye on Ben or to try to look for the Idols themselves. His determination and winning despite being on the center of the radar for most of his game puts him just outside the upper echelon of Survivor winners.

Winners at War Outlook: Let’s face it, Ben has a lot to prove as many fans cried foul and suggested that producers helped him find Idols down the stretch. Ben wants to show he was a much better winner than people remember, and now’s his chance.

Get Ready for ‘Winners At War’ As Survivor Kicks Off Its 20th Anniversary Season!


Age: 43

My Overall Winner Rank: #27

Winning Season: “Survivor: Guatamala” (Season 11)

Danni was a social game player first, but showed great social prowess back in the day…but that day was a long time ago. Can Danni compete in the fast-paced game of today?

Winners at War Outlook:Danni was a popular player and winner waayyyyy back in Season 11, and she’s going to be considered the epitome of an “old school” player. This could bode well for her game, and even Jeff Probst is picking her as one of the season’s most deadliest threats.

Get Ready for ‘Winners At War’ As Survivor Kicks Off Its 20th Anniversary Season!


Age: 29

My Overall Winner Rank: #29

Winning Season: “Survivor: South Pacific” (Season 23)

Put Sophie down as well in the “lots to prove” category. She wasn’t a dominant personality, or a dominant physical threat. She didn’t command the TV screen like a Tony Vlachos or a Sandra. Yet she walked away the winner of her season after admitting to having to “play dumb” as a strategy. Her win was one that was “perceived” as not very strong, and in Survivor perception is everything. Where does Sophie fit in when it comes to an all-winning season?

Winners at War Outlook: Sophie may be an interesting one to watch, as she was much more strategic than her reputation gives her credit for. She won’t be an early target, and her adaptability makes her a front-runner on my list for figuring out how to cope with all of the new twists this season will see.

Get Ready for ‘Winners At War’ As Survivor Kicks Off Its 20th Anniversary Season!


Age: 29

My Overall Winner Rank: #30

Winning Season: “Survivor: Kaoh Rong” (Season 32)

Bro, I know. Michele is the Rodney Dangerfield of Survivor winners, getting “no respect, no respect at all” for her Season 32 win. Her strengths were seen mainly as social, and she currently is tied for lasting the longest in the game without having to attend a single Tribal Council (22 days). No wonder she was able to form great social relationships, right? But is there more to Michele?

Winners at War Outlook: Several players this season have “lots to prove,” but none more than Michele. Is there more to Michele’s game? Is she an underrated winner? She has the chance to prove the world wrong. I’ll say one thing, there is NOBODY playing this season who will be targeting Michele right off the bat, and that’s about the best starting pole position that you can ask for in a season full of winners.

Get Ready for ‘Winners At War’ As Survivor Kicks Off Its 20th Anniversary Season!


Age: 40

My Overall Winner Rank: #32

Winning Season: “Survivor: All-Stars” (Season 8)

Also played on: “Survivor: Australian Outback” (Season 2) where she finished 6/16

She’s one of the most recognizable names and faces in Survivor history, known more commonly these days as “Boston Rob’s wife.” That’s got to sting a bit for the former winner, a player who navigated the very first All-Star returnee season and scored a new husband along with a million dollar check. Many give her little credit for her win, instead piling on the praise of Boston Rob for having really brought the win to fruition. Can Amber shake the shadow of her husband and forge her own legacy in this game?

Winners at War Outlook: Between Amber and Rob, the family has brought in over 2 million dollars in winnings from Survivor…she’s got nothing else to prove except her own worth. One would think that it would be in her best interest to NOT work with Boston Rob then right? If she were to and they were to go far, she’d once again be given no credit. The only way Amber improves her own legacy is to play an independent game this time around…that being said, there’s no way she doesn’t work with Rob, right? And further, by association, she will have a massive target on her from the start, as even if she tries to separate herself from Rob in the beginning, nobody will believe her. The good news is, Boston Rob will be the shield…could Amber take the same path to the win as she did in All-Stars, except cut her husband’s throat along the way? Now that would propel Amber to legendary status all on her own.

Get Ready for ‘Winners At War’ As Survivor Kicks Off Its 20th Anniversary Season!


Age: 45

My Overall Winner Rank: #33

Winning Season: “Survivor: Africa” (Season 3)

Also played on: “Survivor: All-Stars” (Season 8) where he finished 11/18

We’re all better off for having spent some TV time with Ethan Zohn. He’s one of the most beloved Survivor players of all-time, a former pro soccer player, and an all-around likable guy…not to mention he’s overcome incredible odds both in and out of the game of Survivor. Diagnosed with a rare type of Hodgkin’s Lymphoma in 2009,  he continues to beat it. He invested his Survivor winnings and founded Grassroot Soccer, which uses soccer to raise money and awareness to fight HIV/AIDS. He’s simply perhaps the purest, best dude ever to play Survivor.

Winners at War Outlook: Incredibly fun fact: Ethan reportedly once dated Amber Brkich (now Mariano) and now will play the game with both Rob and Amber. While Ethan’s presence this season makes me feel warm and fuzzy inside and adds a bit of authenticity to the game, unless he has radically adapted his style, I think that Ethan will be exposed as a Survivor dinosaur…it’s sad, but is there any room in the modern Survivor game for a wholesome hero like Ethan? I’ll be rooting for him regardless.



With 20 winners returning for “Winners at War,” it was inevitable that not EVERY past winner would be invited to play. Of the 38 people to have won Survivor, including 20 of them this season means that 18 returning winners are not part of this season’s story. While we would love to see certain players play again (Cochran! Earl!), and some of us have personal favorites (Brian Heidik!), we’ll probably never know how these “other 18” would have stacked up. Let’s start with the most glaring of omissions:

Get Ready for ‘Winners At War’ As Survivor Kicks Off Its 20th Anniversary Season!

#6: RICHARD HATCH: Winner – “Survivor: Borneo” (Season 1).

There is no bigger void in the “Winners at War” season than the OG who started it all. So why is Hatch not a part of “Winners at War,” when it seems like he’d be a shoe-in to return? Let Richard tell you in his own words here.

(As far as my rankings go, Hatch was #6 on my list and I had originally said this about him: “The original winner, and arguably (?) the best… Rich tops nearly every “Survivor List” as being the original snake, the original strategist and the father of the “alliance” that has become a staple of every reality competition show, even outside of Survivor. He is certainly the most important player ever to play the game, for his contributions to all of reality television and for birthing the Survivor strategic blueprints. But nobody would call the “Model T” the “best” car out there: Surely there have been faster, better models made since then, even though they all owe their existence to the grand-daddy. There have been better overall games played on Survivor, but few have been able to win over a jury while simultaneously being seen as a villain.”  I’ll add now that it’s a complete shame that they couldn’t find a way to included him in “Winners at War.”)

Get Ready for ‘Winners At War’ As Survivor Kicks Off Its 20th Anniversary Season!

#3: JOHN COCHRAN: Winner – “Survivor: Caramoan” (Season 26)

The man who earned being called only by his last name, Cochran is the unlikeliest of Survivor winners on many different levels. There has also been growing backlash against Cochran, as many let their annoyance of him get in the way of the big picture. First, his win has created a new “type” of Survivor winner: Looking at Cochran and comparing him to the types of people who have previously won, there is nobody like him. A life-long Survivor-obsessed, self-proclaimed Harvard nerd, Cochran came into this season with a surprising amount of confidence. His in-game awareness was off the charts and his physical demeanor made him nearly invisible to others early on. But then Cochran began winning physical challenges too.

Cochran never ran into too much danger all of his winning season, but it was because he had mastered the timing of Survivor: knowing when to strike, before being struck. He orchestrated big moves and was in control of the game from start to finish. His game was only the second “perfect game” ever (after J.T. in Tocantins) where a winner won by a unanimous jury vote while also never having a single vote cast against them the entire game. What separates Cochran’s game from J.T. is that Cochran orchestrated his game, whereas J.T. relied heavily on Stephen Fishbach to navigate his way to the end. A true student of the game, Cochran pulled off one of the most impressive and unlikely Survivor wins the game may ever see.

Get Ready for ‘Winners At War’ As Survivor Kicks Off Its 20th Anniversary Season!

#4: BRIAN HEIDIK: Winner – “Survivor: Thailand” (Season 5)

After Richard Hatch miraculously won the first season of Survivor, the next three winners were Tina, Ethan, and Vecepia: all well-liked, stand-up “good” people and players. At that time, it was thought that no one “villainous” like Hatch could ever win again, now that people know the game and what sort of people to look out for. And then there was Brian Heidik. He manipulated, lied, and outplayed everyone. Like Richard, he seemed to be a step ahead of the competition and had it all figured out. Unlike Richard, he seemed to drift through the season without even caring, like it was easy. Maybe it was for Brian, the self-proclaimed “Ice Man.” He is so despised that he has never been asked to play again, which I for one thinks is a shame. His game is the blueprint that all “schemers” have hoped to achieve since. Now that I get a vote for the “Survivor Hall of Fame,” Brian will be on my ballot every single time. Survivor guru Dalton Ross of also had Brian on his ballot in 2012 and in 2013 Rob Cesternino added his name as well. He remains the last true “villain” to play a villainous, cut-throat game… and actually win.

Get Ready for ‘Winners At War’ As Survivor Kicks Off Its 20th Anniversary Season!

#7: TOM WESTERMAN: Winner – “Survivor: Palau” (Season 10)

Tom dominated his season, and is among the most well liked Survivors in history. It was hard not to root for Tom, and his game play in Palau changed the game forever… here was a guy who yes, played strategic, but somehow did it with a sense of honor and always looked people in the eye. The game continues to evolve, but Tom was a rare example and reminded us that you don’t have to “lie, cheat, and steal” in order to “Outwit, Outplay, Outlast.”

#16: TODD HERZOG: Winner – “Survivor: China” (Season 15)

#19: CHRIS DAUGHERTY: Winner – “Survivor: Vanuatu” (Season 9)

#22: JENNA MORASCA: Winner – “Survivor: Amazon” (Season 6)

#23: J.T. THOMAS: Winner – “Survivor: Tocantins” (Season 18)

#24: MIKE HOLLOWAY: Winner – “Survivor: Worlds Apart” (Season 30)

#25: JUD “FABIO” BIRZA: Winner – “Survivor: Nicaragua” (Season 21)

#27: BOB CROWLEY: Winner – “Survivor: Gabon” (Season 17)

#28: ARAS BASKAUSKAS: Winner – “Survivor: Panama” (Season 12)

#31: EARL COLE: Winner – “Survivor: Fiji” (Season 14)

#34: TINA WESSON: Winner – “Survivor: Australian Outback” (Season 2)

#35: VECEPIA TOWERY: Winner – “Survivor: Marquesas” (Season 4)

#36: NATALIE WHITE: Winner – “Survivor: Samoa” (Season 19)

#37: CHRIS UNDERWOOD: Winner – “Survivor: Edge of Extinction” (Season 38)

Get Ready for ‘Winners At War’ As Survivor Kicks Off Its 20th Anniversary Season!

There you have it! Tune in for the Retrospective Survivor Special on Wednesday, Feb. 5 on CBS, and then join me after the “Survivor: Winners at War” Premiere on Wednesday, Feb. 12! You can count on weekly recaps and reaction from me all season, and also be sure to follow me on Twitter: @tomsantilli and Instagram: @filmsurvivor .  For my movie reviews and TV show, visit


[Photo Credit: CBS/Monty Brinton/Robert Voets/Timothy Kuratek/Jeffrey Neira/Michele Crowe/David M. Russell]