This pioneering CBS reality show has been on the air for almost twenty years. People who weren't even born when Survivor premiered are now old enough to compete. Survivor today looks vastly different from its first season. Back in the day, a lot more focus was given to the geographical aspects of the show. Each season took place in an exotic new location that came with its unique survival challenges. Overt strategic gameplay was taboo and "alliance" was a dirty word. Nowadays things couldn't be more different. Castaways who don't have an alliance on day one are sunk. The incorporation of twists, advantages, and hidden immunity idols all force players to think on their feet.
If physical capability and immunity challenge wins were the key to winning, challenge beasts like Ozzy Lusth and Joe Anglim would both have won the title of Sole Survivor. Those elements of gameplay are important to an extent, but for the most part, it's a solid strategy that secures most players their win. But there's always a little luck involved. Several players have been brilliant strategic masterminds and still haven't managed to walk away with the $1 million cheque.
10 Malcolm Freberg
Players are judged on their strategic aptitude, social game, and physical prowess, typically in that order. Even the best of the best tend to have one weak spot among these three criteria. Not Malcolm. He pulled his weight in challenges and in Philippines, recognized an excellent ally in Denise Stapley. Forming a partnership with her is what brought Malcolm to the final four.
Malcolm's also an incredibly charming, easygoing guy. Despite being one of the more obvious threats, people just enjoyed his company and wanted to keep him around. Unfortunately, while Malcolm's capabilities may ensured his safety for a few tribal councils, nobody wanted to let this powerhouse player near the finals. Each subsequent return saw players voting out Malcolm the triple threat earlier and earlier.
9 Stephen Fishbach
Stephen is considered one of the greatest strategic players Survivor has ever seen. In Tocantins, he quickly performed a rock-solid alliance with J.T. Thomas. Between Stephen's cunning and J.T.'s challenge dominance and winning personality, the two form the perfect Survivor player. Though a great team, most of the voting decisions were made by Stephen. He also did a lot of the dirty work, which ended up damaging his likability while boosting J.T.'s. Stephen's backstabbing and blindsiding came to bite him in the Final Tribal Council. He was raked over the coals and J.T. used his charisma to net himself a unanimous win.
Cambodia was more of a challenge for Stephen. Fellow contestant Andrew Savage took an instant disliking to him, and Stephen found himself on the ropes from the get-go. He didn't fare too badly, going out mid-jury, but players feared his razor-sharp intelligence.
8 Spencer Bledsoe
Many players who go the distance only get there by virtue of riding a stronger player's coattails. Securing a spot in the dominant alliance definitely helps clear the path to the end. Contestants who find themselves on the wrong side of the numbers often know it's only a matter of time before their torch is snuffed. But Spencer, known for his scrappy determination, is not one to give up without a fight. In Cagayan, despite starting off on one of the worst tribes in Survivor history and being in the minority alliance post-merge, Spencer's deft gameplay earned him a spot in the final four.
This is an impressive feat, especially considering Spencer was only 21 during Cagayan. However, Spencer's youth would be a hindrance in Cambodia. Despite having a more secure position than his first time and making it to the finals, Spencer was perceived as immature and arrogant. The jury also thought he was too reliant on fellow ally Jeremy Collins. They unanimously voted Jeremy as the winner.
7 Jonny Fairplay
Jonny Fairplay is one of Survivor's most polarizing players. His brash personality and turncoat tactics are beloved by some viewers and reviled by others. But love him or hate him, Fairplay has to be given some credit for making it to the final three in Pearl Islands, in spite of having blowups with many of his fellow contestants. Fairplay is an opportunist, who was able to shield himself with physically dominant players. Furthermore, even though Fairplay blatantly betrayed several players, he was repeatedly able to convince them to trust him again. If he would have won the Final Immunity Challenge, he likely would have won the game.
Upon returning for Micronesia, Fairplay self-destructed and asked his tribe to vote him out. But even though he was first out in his second season, his Pearl Islands legacy holds steadfast. For a controversial pottymouth, Fairplay could sure have a silver tongue.
6 Kelley Wentworth
Wentworth is a Survivor anomaly. Often contestants shine in their first season but flame out in their second. However, Wentworth is the opposite. In her first season, San Juan del Sur, Wentworth went out pre-merge. While this can point to poor gameplay, sometimes it's just bad luck. Wentworth was competing alongside her father Dale who wasn't a strong social player and made enemies early on. This resulted in Wentworth being an early casualty.
A fan favorite and truly excellent TV, Wentworth joined the three-timers' club, coming back for the most recent season, Edge of Extinction. Blindsided by her closest ally, Wentworth went out with an idol in her pocket, the worst possible embarrassment for a contestant. But at least she was the last of Edge of Extinction's returning players, and that counts for something.
5 David Wright
Who doesn't love a dramatic character arc? In Millenials vs. Gen X, David went from zero to hero. At first, his anxiety and skittishness alienated him from his tribemates. But David was able to dodge the chopping block and picked up confidence along the way. Come the merge, he was seen as a major strategic player. In a clash of the alliance titans, David went head to head with Zeke Smith, and emerged the victor. Sadly, David was perceived as a major threat to win, and the Final Tribal Council eluded his grasp.
Upon returning to Edge of Extinction, players knew what David was capable of. He had a target on his back throughout most of the game and was voted out tenth. Still, considering his threat level was so high, surviving that long speaks to David's Survivor chops.
4 Russell Hantz
Russell is one of Survivor's most notorious contestants, a status he wears like a badge of honor. He's also one of the most enterprising. In Samoa, he was the first player ever to find a hidden immunity idol without the help of a clue. To get to the end, Russell was ruthless in obliterating his competition. However, what he has in cunning prowess, Russell lacks in social grace. He may have controlled the entire game, but at Final Tribal Council, he earned a measly two votes to win.
In Heroes vs. Villains, Russell's arrogance prevented him from learning from his past mistakes. He made the finals again, thanks in part to his quick wit—but also because Parvati Shallow and winner Sandra Diaz-Twine saw him as a goat. Indeed, Russell received no votes at Final Tribal Council.
Russell came back for Redemption Island and even appeared on Australian Survivor: Champions v Contenders.
3 Rob Cesternino
Host Jeff Probst referred to Rob as the "smartest player to never win". Many contestants have come and gone since Rob's time in Amazon, but his reputation has held strong. Until Rob came along, players tended to form an alliance and stick with it, for better or worse. But Rob was like a hummingbird, flitting from alliance to alliance whenever it suited him best. This sometimes got him in hot water, but Rob has the ability to talk his way out of a paper bag. However, like many players on this list, he fell just short of making it to Final Tribal Council.
All Stars didn't go quite so well for Rob. His sense of humor, an asset in Amazon, grated against some members of his tribe. Rob Mariano also perceived him as a threat, cutting him at first opportunity.
2 Aubry Bracco
The fact that Aubry didn't win Kaôh Rōng haunts the dreams of many a Survivor fan. She had a similar origin story to David Wright: a neurotic mess at the beginning who would go on to run the game, particularly during the merge. When Aubry got to the end, she seemed like a lock for the win. Unfortunately, alpha-male contestants Kyle Jason and Scot Pollard suffered from bruised egos. They and other jury members voted for the less threatening Michele Fitzgerald to win.
In Edge of Extinction, the third time would not be the charm for Aubry. At this point, everyone knew what a mover and a shaker she was and voted her out pre-merge.
1 Cirie Fields
From couch potato to self-proclaimed gangster in an Oprah suit, Cirie Fields is the best player to never win Survivor. She played four times and with the exception of Heroes vs. Villains, she dominated each time. Just not enough to win.
Cirie has an innate ability to know when to zig and when to zag. In Panama, when the situation called for sitting back and letting bigger egos take each other out, Cirie didn't make a peep. But when the time came to speak up, Cirie was a master manipulator. Ultimately, it was a fire-making challenge that did her in.
Game Changers, Cirie's fourth and final appearance, saw more of her expert gameplay. But Cirie's bad luck reared its ugly head. In the final six, she found herself the only one without either the Immunity Necklace or a hidden idol. Only a gangster like Cirie could find herself voted out of a game despite receiving no votes.