Survivor encapsulates everything that you could ever want in a reality show. To be a winner of the game, which very few have done, you must have physical strength, mental fortitude, strategic thinking, precise forecasting, and a diverse social presence.
Though Survivor has seen 590 people play the game over 40 seasons, only 38 competitors have been crowned “Sole Survivor.” Since its inception in 1999, the show has evolved from a game of physical survival to a complex game of psychological warfare. Each era of Survivor has seen its dominating players, but which ones are considered the greatest of all time? We went ahead and ranked our top 10 Survivor winners of all time, and some of them may surprise you!
10. Jeremy Collins (Season 31: Cambodia – Second Chance)
Jeremy Collins gets the 10th place spot due to how strong the cast was during his second season. This was a returnee season, known as Second Chance, and he beat the likes of Survivor legends Spencer Bledsoe, Kelly Wentworth, Joe Anglim, Stephen Fishbach, and more. What’s more impressive is that he swept the jury vote 10-0-0 in the finals for a unanimous victory, a feat of which had only been done by four other castaways in the history of the show (Adam Klein, John Cochran, J.T. Thomas, and Earl Cole).
Collins made a master of the “meat shield” strategy, always wanting a bigger target than him to stay in the game and have them absorb all of the blows and bludgeons before it was time to do away with them and take control.
He also possessed a stone-cold killer mentality and appearance at tribal council. He was always serious in demeanor and put his personal feelings to the side.
Collins’ biggest move in the game was saving Stephen Fishbach with one of the two idols he had in his possession. Saving Fishbach went against his allies in the game, yet still remain in their good graces. For all of these reasons, Collins is definitely a top ten Survivor winner of all time.
9. Natalie Anderson (Season 29: San Juan del Sur)
With a stellar performance in both her winning season, San Juan del Sur, and her second-place finish in Winners at War, Natalie Anderson certainly deserves her placement on this list.
During season 40, Winners at War, Anderson was the first person voted off, but remained on the Edge of Extinction collecting fire tokens for winning challenges and using them to her advantage. She nearly played a perfect game after being sent to Extinction, and ended up finishing in 2nd place.
But on Anderson’s main season, the one we’ll focus on the most, she was dealt an early blow when her twin sister, Nadiya, was the first castaway voted off the island. In Survivor: San Juan del Sur, also known as Blood vs. Water, each castaway had a family member to play with them. With Nadiya being gone so early, she was essentially on her own and had to fend for herself.
She was able to stay in the weeds and avoid any easy targeting of herself with her great social play. Anderson also knew when the time was right to pounce and break up the dominant alliance.
Her best move was blindsiding Missy’s daughter, Baylor, at the final 5:
It’s subtle in nature, but her line “Jaclyn, did you vote for who I told you to vote for?” exudes an immense amount of power and influence on full display for the jury to see. Anderson essentially won the season with this type of move, and it’s something that not every Survivor winner can say that they’ve done before.
With Anderson’s win in season 29 and her 2nd place spot in Winners at War, she is clearly in the top ten of all-time Survivor winners.
8. John Cochran (Season 26: Caramoan)
Throughout Survivor’s history, only two people have played what is known as a “perfect game,” which is defined as not receiving a single vote throughout the 39-day voyage and receiving all of the votes at the final tribal council. John Cochran is one of those players, and his performance on Fans vs. Favorites (Caramoan) truly exemplifies the characteristics of one of the best Survivor players of all time.
Using his dry, unique, and self-loathing sense of humor, Cochran completely redeemed himself from his first season, Survivor: South Pacific. He always gave off the impression that he was 2nd or 3rd on the voting blocks when he was actually at the top of the totem pole.
Considering half of the cast had never played before (the “fans”), Cochran was off to a head start from the get-go and never looked back. Though small in stature, he was still able to win several immunity challenges. Plus, he was able to utilize his social gameplay to pick off his counterparts and play a perfect game.
7. Kim Spradlin-Wolfe (Season 24: One World)
If you’ve ever watched Survivor: One World, you probably wondered how on earth Kim Spradlin-Wolfe was able to keep a bullseye off of her back. She was well-liked and was constantly winning immunities. Plus, she was in a dominant alliance. So why did no one come after her?
The answer lies strictly in Kim’s calmness and her overall demeanor. She rarely showed any frustration, despite being in a ton of stressful situations. Kim had a natural ability to get people to trust her and was often an active listener. These are very desired qualities to have in the game of Survivor, and Kim put on a brilliant display of physical and social dominance.
While some might call the cast ‘weak,’ it’s still not easy to form friendships with strangers, backstab them, and still get them to vote for you in the end. She’s widely regarded as being one of the most dominant winners of all time.
Kim also had a respectable showing on season 40: Winners at War, where she finished in ninth place.
6. Yul Kwon (Season 16: Cook Islands)
Yul Kwon was considered “The Godfather” during his season, Cook Islands, mainly because of the “super idol” he had in his possession, which he used to extract power from the rest of the tribe for his alliance’s benefit.
Kwon pulled all the strings during the game. Like Kim Spradlin-Wolfe, he was also able to use his calm demeanor to deflect how demanding and powerful he actually was. He showed empathy for his fellow castaways, yet was a physical threat and played about as good of a political game as you possibly could have. It’s no surprise he went into politics after his Survivor career!
What’s most impressive about Kwon’s win was that he defeated Ozzy Lusth in the finals with a 4-3 vote, in an era of Survivor in which physical strength and immunity wins were still the best resume builders players could have. This marked a moment in Survivor history where that old-school train of thought started to shift over towards stronger social gameplay taking priority. Lusth was seen as the best physical threat of all time up until that point, but Kwon was still able to come away as the winner.
The “super idol” allowed for the possessor to play the idol after the votes were read, as opposed to playing it before the votes are read. Being an earlier season, Kwon knew that letting people know that he had the idol wasn’t necessarily an issue. Everyone became so afraid of who would get “idoled out” that no one decided to step up and flush it out, allowing Kwon and his alliance to take control of the game.
Kwon, unfortunately, didn’t stand much of a chance during Winners at War, as nearly all of the old school winners came in with immediate targets on their back. However, we believe that shouldn’t affect his legacy as one of the best to ever play the game.
5. Richard Hatch (Season 1: Borneo)
Say what you want about Richard Hatch the person, but there’s no denying that he helped craft the blueprint on how to play Survivor. To have the mental wherewithal to be able to realize the situation you’re in (stranded on a deserted island) and prioritize strategy over physical survival is something to be respected. He’s the initiator of the simple ‘alliance’ and used his unique ability to catch fish as a reason for the tribe to keep him, knowing that they’d all go hungry if he left the island. They were forced to keep him and his overly brash personality.
There’s no way Hatch could ever survive in today’s game, but we have to respect the era in which he played. During the final immunity challenge, he knew that either Rudy Boesch or Kelly Wiglesworth would take him to the final two, so he had the audacity to take his hand immediately off the pole and set out the rest of the challenge.
If you were watching live all the way back in 1999, or re-watched the season, you knew from pretty early on that Richard was just ahead of the game. For his dominance in the very first season, without a guide on how to play, Hatch deserves to be considered one of the best winners of all time.
4. Rob Mariano (Season 21: Redemption Island)
Because Rob “Boston Rob” Mariano has been on Survivor a total of five times (six if you include as a mentor for season 39: Island of the Idols), there’s no denying that he’s one of the best to ever play the game.
Mariano won season 21 implementing an old school strategy that consisted of the “buddy system.” The buddy system basically meant that no one left camp for water, food, or to strategize unless you brought someone else with you. It was also a means to keep the minority alliance of the tribe hostage so they couldn’t strategize either.
Luckily for Mariano, his fellow castmates weren’t exactly the most strategic, and most of them blindly followed him, which he, in turn, led them right to the slaughterhouse. Still, considering his stature in Survivor, it’s quite surprising that no one ever decided to take a shot at him.
But none of that was Mariano’s fault. He completely dominated this season from start to finish and manipulated everyone that ever came into contact with. Mariano should have won Season 8: All-Stars, but it meant more to him to save Amber and make sure she won rather than have it for himself.
Mariano’s entire resume puts him on the Mt. Rushmore of Survivor. The “Robfather,” as he’s sometimes referred to, combines a unique skillset of mental and physical strength, while also having a strong social presence around camp. He explained his thought process and strategy right after he won:
3. Sandra Diaz-Twine (Season 7: Pearl Islands & Season 20: Heroes vs. Villains)
Sandra Diaz-Twine is one of the most fascinating debates in the history of Survivor. Yes, she’s won twice and up until last year she was the only person to have ever accomplished that feat. But how did she win those two times? Was she a beneficiary of poor gameplay by others? Was she in the right place at the right time? Was she ever really in control of any season she played?
The answers to those questions are certainly…complicated. Diaz-Twine coined the popular phrase “anybody but me” and employed that as her main strategy during Survivor. While that’s not exactly seen as a winning strategy long term, or a meta-game level maneuver, it certainly worked for her.
Diaz-Twine clearly benefited from Jonny Fairplay’s ruthlessness and unlikability throughout the tribe, but that wasn’t her fault. Lillian Morris, the runner-up of Survivor: Pearl Islands, chose to take Diaz-Twine because she didn’t want Fairplay to win, and none of that should be seen as a knock against Diaz-Twine.
In Heroes vs. Villains, she was clearly on the outside looking in with Parvati Shallow and Russell Hantz calling the shots and orchestrating votes. The jury was so upset with how they were treated by the pair, that they ended up voting for Diaz-Twine in the end. Another huge “right place at the right time” type of scenario played out again for her in her favor this season.
So while she may not be the best strategist to have ever played the game, you have to respect her resume and what she did for the Survivor franchise. There are so many ways to play the game, and while she may have luckboxed her way to two individual wins, there’s certainly no taking that away from her.
She would have been higher on this list if not for her catastrophic blunder on Winners at War, in which she was voted out with her own idol.
Despite her mistake, she’s still sitting in a great spot on our list. It was incredible to see how she was able to take the target off of her back even though she had already won twice. Diaz-Twine’s cockiness certainly got to her here, but she still is one of the best to ever play.
2. Parvati Shallow (Season 16: Micronesia)
We present to you: the queen of Survivor. Although Sandra Diaz-Twine has won twice, Parvati Shallow demonstrated better gameplay not only during her winning season of Micronesia, but in her other seasons as well.
Shallow orchestrated chilling blindsides, found idols, used her charm to her advantage, and demonstrated multiple layers to her strategy and gameplay. Her blindside of Ozzy Lusth to this day is the most stone-cold blindsides of all time:
Leading the “Black Widow Brigade“, she calmly and effortlessly manipulated the tribe into getting things she wanted done. She played a big role in convincing Erik Reichenbach, one of the only wrenches in her plan, to give up his immunity necklace at the final 5, and promptly voted him out.
So while Shallow has only won once (in addition to finishing second in Heroes vs. Villains) we still think she played better games than Sandra Diaz-Twine. While both are outstanding players, it’s clear Shallow was much more strategic and Diaz Twine.
1. Tony Vlachos (Season 28: Cagayan & Season 40: Winners At War)
Tony Vlachos might be the most electric, wild, eccentric, and paranoid player to have ever competed on Survivor. But wow, he sure did make it work.
Vlachos literally could not have played any better in season 40. He had no business even making the merge with his type of reputation and track record. But lo and behold, he accomplished the impossible: winning the all-winners season.
Coining the phrase “lions vs. hyenas” in season 40, which became the theme of the season, Vlachos took Jeremy Collins’ meat shield gameplay to the next level. He hid in the weeds, toned it down, and laid low before the merge. Then, he sprung into action once the tribes combined.
How could a player of this caliber not receive a single vote against him throughout the entire course of the game? Even as he remained a huge threat, he was still able to shift focus to other players.
As of right now, there is no debate who the best Survivor player is of all time. The answer is Tony Vlachos and quite frankly, it’s not even close. Winning twice, with one being the best cast of all time, is all the proof we need to put him here.