It's you against the field in a war of attrition, where endless perfect play can be spoiled by one mistimed mistake. You get to know the opposition, learning every nuance of their being, storing that information until you can use it against them by taking them out and ending their game. There may be friendly faces, but ultimately, every other player is your enemy, because only one of you can win the big prize. When it comes down to it, you play to win. The rest be damned.
The names Albert Destrade and Jim Rice may not be familiar to poker fans. Both play. Both have found success at the felt. Destrade, a baseball coach by trade, earns the majority of his income through raking pots in South Florida's live games. Rice, a legalized marijuana distributor from Denver (yes, his Twitter account was all a-Tebow this weekend), has managed assorted tournament scores, including a $116,555 win in a $2,000 buy-in Festa Al Lago preliminary event. Their success suggests they play poker well, but poker is not what got their faces on national TV. That would be "Survivor."
Even if you don't watch it, you probably know what "Survivor" is: A group of 16-20 American men and women covering a broad spectrum of ages, skill sets, races, colors and creeds is given scant supplies and a stunning patch of unoccupied, undeveloped land in a tropical locale on which they're to build a society, all the while playing a game in which they vote out one of their own every three days. Numbers dwindle until two or three players are left standing. At that point, evicted players vote for their champion, who receives $1 million for their trouble. While the game is the mechanism, it's the humanity that makes for good television. That's where our poker players come in.
"There is never a concerted effort to cast any specific type of profession on 'Survivor,' but I don't think it's a coincidence that poker players make for such great characters," said host/executive producer Jeff Probst via email. "'Survivor' is the social politics equivalent of poker. It's a game about reading other people, learning their tendencies, showing them only as much as you want them to see, but letting them think they are seeing more than they should. In the end, as we say on the show, 'only one will remain' -- that is the essence of 'Survivor' and poker."
Destrade and Rice finished third and 12th, respectively, on "Survivor: South Pacific," the recently concluded 23rd installment of the reality show. Following in the footsteps of former players Jean-Robert Bellande and "Survivor: Redemption Island" champion "Boston Rob" Mariano, the two brought poker experience and know-how to an altogether different social game.
"It definitely benefited me, going into a million-dollar game having competition on my résumé," said Destrade, 26. "I played in the 2010 WSOP and I think it mentally had me ready to have me dealing with playing for my livelihood. That's how I approached it. It was like 'this is my main event.' I put in all the prep I could. In poker, I'm a studier and I put in countless hours prepping for 'Survivor.' I had a great core of friends prepping me and coaching me for the game.
"There's a lot of analogy between poker and 'Survivor.' There's a lot of luck and skill involved," he continued. "Like in poker, not always does the best player or play win. You can't be results-oriented. You need to get it in with a slight edge and hope it holds up."
Bellande, who appeared during the show's 15th season, believed the similarities between the two games are clearly defined.
"It's very similar to playing a tournament," recalled Bellande. "Your first goal is to make it to tomorrow, make it past tribal council. At the same time you have the long term goal of winning the tournament or the million."
Poker-playing fans of the show have long wondered how one of poker's biggest stars would do on "Survivor." That debate almost became a reality when Daniel Negreanu was invited to participate on "Survivor: China" in 2007, but Negreanu turned it down, as he didn't want to miss the World Series of Poker. Bellande got the invitation instead.
Negreanu and Mariano are close friends, even collaborating on the short-lived "Rob and Amber: Against the Odds," in which Negreanu tutored Mariano in the latter's quest to become a professional poker player (The show ended when the Marianos were invited to participate on "The Amazing Race."). Asked what kind of "Survivor" player Negreanu would have made, Mariano felt it came down to one factor:
"Danny is really good at the ability to flush out the B.S. by reading the player, the body language, the demeanor. That holds for both games. I think each game lends to each other, but psychology is the one dominant joining factor in both games. He'd be a good player".
While Negreanu worries that his well-known face might put a target on him, he says he'd like to give the show a shot. Hey, "Survivor" producers, what do you say?
The goals aren't the only similar aspects of the two games, with each of the respondents touching on how strategically similar poker and "Survivor" are. Bellande talked about getting an early read on who the strong and weak players are; Destrade waxed on about how poker prepared him to understand how he was being viewed by others.
"I was a psychology major in college, and I think it's fascinating to see how different people, presented the same problem or situation, will find a way to go about approaching it in different way," said Mariano, who describes himself as a serious recreational player (see sidebar). "'Survivor', more than anything else, is a social game. The same goes for poker. When you play with the same guys week in week out over the course of time, you know who they are, but in a tournament, you need to make adjustments quickly. You have to do that with 'Survivor', too. You make assumptions about people the first day you meet them. The moment you see people -- even in casting -- you make assumptions. By the end of 39 days, you've gotten to know them. You use that knowledge to get a good idea of how they're going to react to a certain situation, if the story they're telling makes sense. You need to figure out if someone is acting, then figure out why they'd want you to believe what they're selling."
Obviously, the games have their differences. Decision-making is an altogether different animal under the duress of weekslong mind games, paranoia and starvation. Even in those conditions though, Rice's private time with the camera displayed a remarkably similar approach to the two games, with the mathematics preached in poker playing a large part in his decision-making on "Survivor." When he explained the math behind his in-game decisions, that math became narrative.
Rice was eliminated because he misread another player's motivations, assuming that, like his own, victory was the only plausible one. His game fell on its face when another player made moves intended to extend his stay rather than position them better for a potential victory. Rice feels his poker game will grow from the experience.
"I understand better now that people's motivations aren't always the same as mine," Rice said. "They're not always the same. In poker, you'd think it would be to make money, but for some people, it's making that final table being on TV."
While Rice's frustrations poured through on the screen, they were only momentary. In looking back, he looks at his fellow castaways and sees another similarity between the games.
"When you're at that table, you form these relationships," Rice said. "It's honor among thieves. You sometimes form the relationships for future use and information. It is the same in 'Survivor.' The people you go through a tournament, or 'Survivor,' with, you respect them because you know what they've gone through. It's what you've gone through. Same thing in poker, if someone's outplayed me. If they blindside me and get all of my chips, I respect that."
Destrade, who only found out he didn't win when players reunited months after play was done for the live finale, has seen his poker game grow in other ways. Third-place on "Survivor" nets $75,000 before taxes.
"'Survivor' definitely helped the bankroll a bit," Destrade smiled. "I'm going to move up in stakes. Strategically, I don't tilt as easily now. Losing a couple of buy-ins won't send me on tilt now that I've had a million dollar swing. It puts it all in perspective. I recognize it's not the end of the world if I lose in a session. I did pretty damn well in a bigger game."