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December 21, 2017 at 12:09 PM EST

He said he would have won had he made the final three, and he stands by it! But Mike Zahalsky did not make the final three of Survivor: Heroes v. Healers v. Hustlers after Devon protected himself by throwing a stray vote Mike’s way at the final five — the exact same move Mike was planning on Devon but did not follow through on. It’s that unmade move that Mike says “will haunt me for the rest of my life.”

We spoke about that with the urologist the morning after the finale, and he explains why he would have won, whom he ended up voting for to win, and why he would change that vote if he could go back and do it again. He also has a rules suggestion if they are going to keep the new fire-making at final four twist.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: So have you slept at all?
MIKE ZAHALSKY:
Yeah. I slept, but I’m now hiding in the bathroom to talk to you because my whole family is sleeping — which is maybe appropriate because I am a urologist.

You said after being voted out that you would have won in a final three against anyone. Do you still believe that?
Ben was tough competition. You all didn’t necessarily see all of my game, but there is a reason Joe — in a good game move — threw me under the bus five minutes onto the island. I found an idol without a clue, just being told to dig somewhere near the well. There’s a reason I was the last Healer standing. I played a good social and good strategic game. I made some questionable gameplay moves but I think everybody made some really bad moves out there at times. I believed wrongly that if I voted Devon that last vote, if Devon went back to the island with me I was toast. That there was no way unless I won immunity — because I didn’t know about the fire challenge — that I was making it to the final three at that point.

The reality is, because of the fire challenge, had I voted for Devon at the final five vote — and I told Ryan I was going to vote for Devon — then I’m sitting at the final four and the question becomes: Does Chrissy make me make fire against Ben? Does she let the Marine shine that much more against somebody or do I convince her she needs to take Ben to the final three and let me make fire against Ryan because otherwise Ben is just going to keep looking better and better. Ben looked so good after making fire against Devon and winning. He was an unstoppable force at that point.

So how do you get the votes to win then?
Then if you get me to the final three, I believe I have the three Healer votes. We never had a fight with each other. And then at that point, if I’m sitting with Ben and Chrissy, I have Lauren and Devon’s votes. It’s an interesting situation in terms of who are you sitting with at the final three. If I’m sitting there with Ryan and Chrissy, I think I had everybody’s votes. The only one that I really believe might have beaten me was Ben. Like, Devon, Ryan, and Chrissy — I don’t think they realized, “Oh wait, there are three Healers on the jury. Mike is going to get all three of those votes no matter what.”

And it’s just a touch-and-go situation. Like you say, “Oh, Mike threw Lauren’s idol in the fire. There’s no way that she’s going to vote for him.” But even after I threw her idol in the fire, when Lauren was voted out, she handed me her extra vote to see if I could use it, which clearly I couldn’t because that’s not the way the game works — but that was my social game, that even after she gets voted out because of me, she’s giving me extra votes.

Whom did you vote for to win?
I voted for Chrissy. And in retrospect maybe I did something wrong. In retrospect, I think I would have voted Ben because I didn’t realize how much orchestration Ben had done in the game. I looked at finding an immunity idol as the equivalent of winning an immunity. So Chrissy had four, he had three. So Chrissy was one ahead. Then you’ve got the fact that both of them went from the top to the bottom. But Chrissy had got back on top, versus Ben who was staying on the bottom. Maybe if more time was given he would have also come back on top but he didn’t have more time. We were there for 39 days.

Also, Chrissy did allow me to spend time with my family. That was priceless to me, so I felt like she should be rewarded for that. I don’t know if anyone else really would have taken me to the loved ones visit. But Chrissy did so I was saying thank you. So for those three reasons I voted for Chrissy.

But now you say you should have given it to Ben?
I think both of them represent excellent strength players in Survivor. But I think Ben had an undeniable charisma. It’s the same reason I wanted to vote Ben out first. Ben has undeniable charisma and ambitiousness and ferocity that unless you meet him and see it — he’s always, always on it. He’s always playing. I think people would vouch for me and say I was always playing as well, but he has this intensity. I really think he’s one of the best players ever on Survivor.

Why not follow Ben around more when you all knew he needed an idol to save himself?
I was also always looking for the idol. I can’t say whether the other three people were literally just lying in the shelter back at camp all day long, but I was always looking for the idol as well. But at the same time, if I followed Ben around at the final six and left the other four, they would have said, “Okay, those are the two we’re splitting our votes between.” If I had been following Ben, I’m sure it would have been different at final six and I would have been going home.

You’re a big fan. Taking out the result and what happened and whom it happened to: What do you think philosophically about the new fire-making at final four twist?
I think it’s great. I think you do need to know how to make fire. The concept that you wouldn’t train to make fire? Yeah, I do think it should be a rite of passage. I really do. But that being said, I believe there should be one vote in there where you actually need to play the game of Survivor where you can’t have an immunity idol. So if you’re going to do fire at four, I think you need to have immunity idols end at six. And I think that fits. So there’s one vote in there that people have an ability to get out somebody like Ben without Ben just being able to idol himself to the finals. And you sort of want to know the rules going in because that’s going to change the way you play.

And that’s what they did with the Redemption Island twist. They told everyone at the very start of the season that was happening so people could adjust accordingly. But on the flip side, there are plenty of other twists where players have no idea about it until it happens.
Clearly, if I had known, I would have voted for Devon there — absolutely, no question about it. And the game changes at that point. It changes dramatically. I’m a robotic surgeon. I work with my feet and my hands together a lot and would I have won the final immunity challenge? Maybe, you never know and I’ll never know. But that Devon vote will haunt me for the rest of my life, absolutely.

So, do you play again if you get the call?
I went out there to win Survivor. I haven’t won Survivor yet. Am I answering the phone? Absolutely. I have to have a conversation with my wife because it was hard on her. It was like I was dead. That said, she loves me more now! I was dead and I came back to life! Like Jason in Friday the 13th or Ben in Survivor: HHH — the evil person that keeps staying alive! But I haven’t finished my dream.

Maybe just pitch another Blood vs. Water season and bring her out with you.
That would be awesome, but I didn’t know if she’d play. She would kick everybody’s ass but I didn’t know if she would play. My wife and I are complete opposites, even to the point where we had to pick the balls out of the bag, I was almost screaming out to her, “No, pull the other one!” And of course, we got the wrong ball. We’re opposites. So I told her if we got to the family visit, do not come out. You’re going to mess up my game. And of course she comes out and I’m super happy to see her, but it was honestly maybe the downfall of my game.

I couldn’t sleep more than half an hour at a time because we’re sleeping on cold, wet sand all day every day. But in the loved ones visit, we got blankets and a pillow, so now I have a blanket and pillow and finally for the first time in a month I’m able to sleep, which is how Ben was able to find that last idol very early because he woke up earlier than I did to look for it. I assure you as soon as I woke up that morning, I went to the raft and looked for the idol, and it wasn’t there because Ben had already found it. And it’s because I had a blanket because he came out. But at the end of the day, I love my wife. I’m super glad she was there. Maybe next time she doesn’t come. [Laughs.]

Make sure to read our full Survivor finale recap as well as our interviews with winner Benrunner-up Chrissyfinalist Ryan and fourth-place finisher Devon. Also get some inside intel on NEXT season from Jeff Probst as well as Probst answering all the finale burning questions. And for tons more finale coverage, follow Dalton on Twitter @DaltonRoss.

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