If the long-running reality game show Survivor is like a course in social politics, then surely Jeff Probst is the professor. The series’ host and executive producer has presided over all 27 seasons of an ever-evolving competition in which every player with an eye on the prize must devise a strategy that takes into account two unpredictable factors: luck and human nature.
That kind of environment proves ripe for bold moves that blindside opponents, shock players and allow major risks to pay off. “The more time that goes on, the more I appreciate the good players,” the four-time Emmy-winning Probst tells TIME.com. “You learn how difficult this game is by watching them play and how much work it is to find a way over 39 days to really sleep with one eye open and still maintain the ability to think strategically when not really sleeping and when you don’t trust anyone.”
With 406 contestants competing in 403 episodes (as of Wednesday’s episode), Probst says the top 5 strategy plays prove obvious. “These so far surpass everything else because they are iconic,” he says, “they deal with alliances, social politics and when to make the big move.”
Probst gave his clear-cut list in no particular order—citing them all as equally impressive.
Richard Hatch – Survivor: Borneo (2000)
“The first one is when alliances were first hatched. Richard Hatch, our first winner, was the first person to form an alliance and it was a small, organic moment that came as a result of him being annoyed by another player. He just said I’ll exclude Dr. Sean from my group. The exhilarating part for us was watching this unfold. The producers were scurrying around saying ‘that means he will have three votes and he can’t get voted out, this is brilliant.’ The game was brand new and we didn’t know what was going to happen, but it was a monumental moment that foreshadowed how the game was going to be played for years to come and was the key to Hatch winning. Now, a guy like Hatch would just be another player, but in its day it was giant.”
Russell Hantz – Survivor: Heroes vs. Villains (2010)
“For all of Russell Hantz’s faults, he is a very shrewd strategist. In Heroes vs. Villains, he sensed he was in trouble a “ nd likely to be voted out. The key to the vote was it would be a three-way tie to flush out an (immunity) idol and during a re-vote, one would be sent home. He talked to Tyson and, with a heavy heart and sad eyes, he says the only way he can stay is to vote out Parvati. In doing so we was letting Tyson know that Tyson’s vote is not really important since I’m switching mine. Russell put the thought in Tyson’s head that his vote didn’t matter and Tyson changed his vote and, unbeknownst to him, Russell and Parvati and their alliance voted off Tyson. It was really a brilliant strategic maneuver by Russell and one of the reasons we brought him back so often. In social politics, the guy is pretty good at reading people and getting them to move in a way that moves himself further.”
Ozzy Lusth – Survivor: South Pacific (2011)
“There are times in Survivor you really have to be willing to put your neck on the line. And people are afraid to do it, saying ‘if I just stick with the plan, I’ll go a little further and figure it out from there.’ Rarely do people say I’m going for broke right now. There was a moment with sacrificial lamb Ozzy in South Pacific when he was in a good spot as a leader and with a hidden immunity idol where he was safe for a few more tribal councils, but he knew long-term he wouldn’t have the numbers. So, in one of the biggest moves in Survivor history, he gave up his idol to Cochran and asked his tribe to send him to Redemption Island where he believed he could win himself back into the game. He wins duel after duel and gets back into the game and had a shot to win it all. If he made it to the final he was a shoe-in to win for that bold of a move.”
Cirie Fields – Survivor: Micronesia – Fans vs. Favorites (2008)
“Survivor is about social politics and the greatest example of a player reading another player and exploiting them was Cirie and Erik [Reichenbach] in Fans vs. Favorites. Cirie’s powerful all-woman alliance was going to vote off Erik, the lone man, but Erik won immunity. Cirie just casually began to say to Erik that, unfortunately, ‘none of us trust you and you’re a nice guy, but that won’t get you any votes in the end and you won’t win, but if you just do something to show you’re trustworthy, like giving up your idol tonight, it would prove to us you trust us and we won’t vote you out.’ As Cirie said, ‘We are going to vote him out so fast he won’t have time to blink.’ They did. Erik was bamboozled by boobs and believed them. It was an epic move by a fanatic player. Cirie was using her motherly ways, talking to Erik as if he was her son, giving the ‘I’m not mad, I’m just disappointed’ speech and it made Erik so want to prove to them he was a good person.’”
Parvati Shallow – Survivor: Heroes vs. Villains (2010)
“One of the biggest moves came from Parvati in Heroes vs. Villains. Even Parvati’s close ally Russell didn’t know Parvati had two hidden immunity idols. She held onto them and held onto them and the heroes were about to take control. After everyone voted , I asked if anyone had an idol and Parvati pulled out one and gave it to Sandra, who was shocked. She said, ‘Jeff, I’m going to increase my odds,’ and pulled out a second one and handed it to Jerri. All the heroes just dropped their heads and the villains went on to control the rest of the game. It was a giant game by a giant player.”
Probst says that each of the five biggest plays—really, move number six, he says, is so far down the list they aren’t even in the same league—proves you have to make at least one giant move to win Survivor. And you have to time it perfectly.
Will we see something similar in this current Blood vs. Water season? “There is actually a giant move,” Probst says. “Giant. Shocking. It is a moment where I couldn’t believe it happened.” But will it be enough to turn the player into a one-word Survivor star? “I can’t say if it is worthy of this list,” Probst says, “but the move will be historic.”