He played the game of Survivor: Cagayan at a blistering pace that we’ve never seen before, making moves upon moves, even when there were seemingly no moves to even make. In the end, Tony Vlachos’ dedication won him the check for a million dollars and the title of Sole Survivor, but only after Woo made the shocking decision to bring him — instead of the easily beatable Kass — to the finals. We talked to the winner to get his take on Woo’s decision, Trish’s epic takedown at the final Tribal Council, and what he considers his best move of the game. (Click through both pages of the interview to read the entire thing. Also make sure to check out our interviews with runner-up Woo Hwang, the controversial Kass McQuillen and fan favorite Spencer Bledsoe. Plus read Dalton’s finale/reunion recap as well as Jeff Probst giving his take on the finale and Probst giving intel on NEXT season.)
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Tony, you are all about strategy and making whatever moves needed to be made to win the game, so let me ask you: Is Woo bringing you to the finals the worst move in Survivor history. He said himself earlier in the finale that it would be.
TONY VLACHOS: You know, it’s hard to say because Woo was not able to distinguish who he was as a person to the game at that moment. And he put his guard down for just that one second, and that’s what cost him the game, I believe. But I don’t think it’s the worst ever. I wouldn’t say that.
EW: How confident were you that he would bring you to the end?
TONY: I’d say 60-40. Woo, Trish and I, we had a chemistry all together. You have to have chemistry with people out there and we just clicked and bonded and were indestructible until the end, and Woo proved that.
EW: I was shocked when he did that. And Woo looked shocked last night at the reunion after watching it all play out.
TONY: I was a little bit shocked myself watching it. When you watch it, it really puts things into perspective because when you’re out there on the island it is totally different and the feelings are different than they are in life. So watching the show, when we were watching it play back I was like, “Oh my goodness. Like, wow, Woo. I think you just messed up.” Seeing it like that, yeah, I think that when he finally realized that he was like, “Wow, I think I made a wrong move by taking Tony at that moment.”
EW: The most intense moment of that final Tribal Council was when Trish berated you for swearing on your dead father and then asked you if it was worth it.
TONY: Absolutely! I’m sure you, me, and all of America saw that and was like, wow, that is deep! But being the person that Trish is, she expressed her feelings in that moment, and like she said, five minutes later as soon as I went to Ponderosa, she grabbed me, I had tears in my eyes. You know, I felt bad. That’s the hardest part of the game that people don’t realize — when you have to backstab people, I took no pleasure in that. That hurt me the most. And Trish especially, I was devastated. And as soon as she walked into the Ponderosa after the game was over she grabbed me and hugged me and said, “Tony, I want you to know I just had to get that off my chest and I feel 100 percent better that I did that and I love you and I’ll always love you and you made a friend in me for life.” So much weight was lifted off my shoulders by her doing that for me. It was just a beautiful finish for me because I know she forgave me. And let me tell you, when I made those promises to those people, my heart was in the right place at that moment. But my brain was not. And in that game, if you let your emotions take over and you drop your guard, then you’re out of your game.
EW: Take me through your thought process as that is going down when Trish is laying into you. How are you figuring out how to respond to that in a way that will play well with the jury?
TONY: Vulnerability. I didn’t want to argue with anybody. I didn’t want to tell anybody, “Oh, I’m better than you are,” or “I played you” or any of that. I didn’t want to do that. Whatever you had to tell me, I sucked it up and told them, “You know what? You’re right, I’m very sorry.” You could see in the look in my face I was very apologetic towards it. I didn’t get no pleasure in that. I didn’t do nothing subtle in that game with the exception of the final Tribal where I was just nice and quiet. I didn’t want to talk too much. I didn’t want to have no arguments. I didn’t want to be confrontational. So whatever they had to dish out to me, I was going to just take it and accept it.
EW: But you stuck to your guns at the same time. You said, yes, it was worth it.
TONY: Well, what am I gonna tell them? Of course it was worth it! Look where I was sitting! And she appreciated the fact that I didn’t try to weasel any way out of it. I owned it. And the same thing with Jefra. Of course, I owned it. I voted you out. I own that.
EW: When did it occur to you that you could lie about the idol’s special powers?
TONY: That was pretty much towards the end when I was setting myself up to keep both idols. That’s why I didn’t want to play my regular one. So as soon as I found it I said this has got to be more special than just playing it after the votes are read. So I figure out, let me try to scare them a little bit and tell them about it. I tried to raise a reasonable doubt in everybody’s mind about me. When is Tony lying? When is he telling the truth? Could he be lying? Could he be telling the truth? So as long as I had that doubt, it puts fear in people. And as long as they have fear, they wouldn’t make a move against me. They would go for the avenue of least resistance, and that’s what they were doing. They were just picking somebody else off so that didn’t have to mess with me. So with that idol, I just said I have nothing else. I can’t win any of the puzzles, so I may get stuck and need the help of an idol at the final four, guaranteeing me the final three. And then when Spencer started talking about a final two I was like, OHHHHHH, SNAP! There are gonna be some problems here. I wish I had never told them final four. I wish I had told them it would take me all the way to the end, no matter what it is — final three or final two.
EW: Were you worried at all that Probst would out you? Because in the past he has notified everyone as to the last point at which hidden immunity idols can’t be played.
TONY: He did it in this season! He started saying, “Why don’t you flush one of his idols out?” So I was scared he was going to do something like that, and that’s why as soon as I walked in there I said, “Jeff, you know what? My bag’s getting heavy. I got to get rid of some wood. I’m playing my old idol — out with old, in with the new..” So I wanted to make it clear to Jeff that that was my plan at that moment, that I was going to lie and save my special power idol for the next Tribal. And at that point, he’s not going to say “No, Tony, it’s not,” because that’s the great thing about production, even with my Spy Shack — they sacrifice their footage so they don’t jeopardize my game. I was in the spy shack for hours at a time. And you have no footage of that, because they were not going to jeopardize my game, and Jeff did a great job of not jeopardizing my game. He just went along with it. And that’s the beauty of it — it’s our game. It’s our destiny that we’re controlling. Nobody’s interfering with that.
EW: Sarah’s clearly still a little sore at you. Anyone else?
TONY: I believe they understood that it was a game and that my strategy was not to go in the game and swear on my family. Everybody knows my heart was in the right place at that moment and that’s why they believed me as much as they did, because it was real, it was true, and it was genuine. As far as Sarah, she did some interviews and I heard some things she was saying where she’s a person who honors her badge and this and that. But you know what? Every single day that I’m wearing my uniform and my badge I’m literally risking my life to honor my badge. Honoring my badge on Survivor has nothing to do with life, and that’s why she was on the jury — because she stuck to her guns about honoring her badge when she had no business bringing it into that game. And she did and that’s what happened. So she’s a little salty, but it’s not that deep. We’re gonna talk in another week or two, I’m sure.
EW: You mentioned hearing boos in the audience when you won. I couldn’t pick that up through the TV but what was the reaction like inside the room?
TONY: I was hoping that were saying “Woooooo!” but they were saying “Boooooo!” when they were watching the show and I was swearing on people. I was like, awwww, man. People need to distinguish between a game and life, and that’s exactly what I did and that’s why I succeeded. I would not have won if I was not a good person. I’m a great person. People loved me out there. And that’s the reason I won. People did not reward me because I was backstabbing and deceiving them and being mean to them, they rewarded me because I played the game like it’s supposed to be played to get me to the end. But they knew I was a great perosn. Deep down inside I’m a genuine person and they all saw that.
EW: You made a lot of big moves in this game. What would you say was your best one.
TONY: Pick one because every move that I made I felt it was the best move, but to be honest with you, I really think LJ was the best move because it was that point in the game where I felt I needed to turn things around. Because on paper, the strategy didn’t look good, but when you’re out there, nothing on paper looks good There’s nothing text book about Survivor. I’m sure you know that and all the players know that. It’s a situational game, and at that time it was the best move for me to do because I still had the threats in Spencer and in Tasha who my alliance was terrified of because they were challenge beasts. So while they were thinking about that I was thinking, I have to keep them in the game so I can keep killing my alliance from within and they won’t even see me coming.
EW: Would you come back and play Survivor all over again?
TONY: I believe in a heartbeat, but what can I do this time around? I can’t bring my bag of tricks no more because they’ll be like, “Tony’s bluffing.” I can’t swear on nobody because they’ll say that’s not credible anymore. I can’t build spy shacks because they’re going to be watching while they’re talking. So what else do I have left?
EW: Gotta change it up!
TONY: And that’s exactly my point about situational strategies. So I guess if I go out there — and I’d love to go back out there again — I guess I’d have to come up with something different.
EW: It’s all about adaptability. Okay, so what are you going to do with the money?
TONY: I’m gonna buy a pink chandelier! But after talking to the people in the Brains tribe and you hear how educated they are, it’s the most beautiful thing you can have in this world. So I made up my mind that they inspired me enough to get a college education for both my kids. I have a baby daughter at 15 months and I have another baby boy on the way now. My wife is pregnant. And I’ll have a college fund set up for both of them thanks to Spencer, Tasha, and the nuclear engineer J’Tia.
Click on the video player below to watch an exclusive deleted scene of Tony from last night’s finale. Also make sure to check out our interviews with runner-up Woo Hwang, the controversial Kass McQuillen and fan favorite Spencer Bledsoe. Plus read Dalton’s finale/reunion recap as well as Jeff Probst giving his take on the finale and Probst giving intel on NEXT season. And for ‘Survivor’ scoop sent directly to you, follow Dalton on Twitter @DaltonRoss.