By Dalton Ross
February 14, 2019 at 11:15 AM EST

SPOILER ALERT: I’m going to do something I’ve never done before, and that is reveal my episode 1 pick to win a Survivor season before episode 1 airs. I mean, I guess I kinda already did that in the headline so it’s not such a spoiler now, but yes, David Wright is my pick to win Survivor: Edge of Extinction (premiering Feb. 20 on CBS). And yes, considering my picks have now been wrong TWENTY TWO TIMES IN A ROW, I just jinxed David Wright from winning anything, but let’s ignore that for the moment, shall we?

To understand why David — who came in fourth place in Millennials vs. Gen X —  is my pick, all you need to do is read my interview with him from Fiji two days before this upcoming season began. I’m not sure if any player I have ever interviewed has done more preparation heading into a season. I’ve always maintained that puzzle-solving is the most important challenge skill, and David should easily dominate in that category. Fire-making is now a close second with the new final four rules, and David has that on lockdown as well. (Too bad they didn’t have that rule in place for him last time he played.)

But that’s not all David has going for him. As a returning player, he will not be crippled by the early game paranoia that almost completely derailed him last time. And with three-timers Kelley Wentworth, Joe Anglim, and Aubry Bracco also back, David is most likely seen as the least threatening of the returnees, meaning he could get easily overlooked as a target compared to the other all-stars.

If you really want to know what sealed the deal for me in making David my pre-game pick to win it all, just read the interview below, where he spills the beans about a fake advantage and fake idol he plans to plant, all his absurd puzzle prep, and why he compares himself to the Dark Knight and hopes to be a “more lovable Heisenberg” in his second time out. It’s a great interview. You should check it out. Just scroll down. It’s that easy! (Read through both pages for the entire interview.)

Timothy Kuratek/CBS

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: David, why come back and do this again?
DAVID WRIGHT: That’s a great question. I’ve been asking myself that a lot lately. Women, they give birth. Then they get amnesia, and they forget how hard labor was. It gets them to do it again. But I remember every horrible detail about my first Survivor experience. There are a lot of reasons to say no to this, especially also given the fact that I think there’s just going to be a giant target on my back coming into this game.

Why do you think there’s a giant target on your back coming into this game?
Millennials vs. Gen X, it wasn’t that long ago. I think people remember the season. I think they’ll remember how well I did. These newbies are going to want to come up with any excuse to not get voted out themselves, and they’ll just say, “Hey, let’s get rid of this returnee. He seems to know what he’s doing. He’s a threat.”

All right, so you say “these newbies.” You’re assuming there’s going to be newbies.
Yes. I believe there will be newbies. Actually, I thought until today that I had a handle on the theme. I do think it is somehow related to day 38, because I got voted out day 38. Kelley Wentworth got voted out day 38.

And she’s the only person that you know is on this season. You guys traveled together over here.
That’s right, but I suspect there are two more returnees, to be honest. I just have a hunch. I don’t know who. If it indeed is season 38, then presumably you would expect to see someone like Devon [from Heroes v. Healers v Hustlers]. Then I think you would also need another woman. I don’t know if that’s Cydney [from Kaoh Rong] or who that would be, but I do think it’s some version of day 38. I do feel like I’m missing just a piece of the puzzle, and I can’t put my finger on it.

You brought up day 38. You and I just were speaking a little before we started rolling here about the new final four fire-making challenge. First off, what do you think of that? As someone with a lot of experience that did not get that chance to make fire, was cut at the final four, what are your thoughts on it?
Especially now that I’m about to play again, it hurts a lot less. I think it was certainly hard for season 35 because it was sprung on them. They didn’t know about it. But now, it is a fundamental part of the game. I think that, yeah, if you get cast on Survivor, you just need to know how to make fire. You need to know how to make it really fast. Fortunately for me, I can make fire in less than 20 seconds. I view now final four personally as really being final three, because I just don’t think that anybody can beat me making fire.

Was that the case last time you played?
It was the case last time I played. Really, honestly, it’s my fault for not pressuring Ken to make it a tie between Adam and I, because I think had that happened, if it had gone to fire, I would have won. Then I’d be a millionaire right now.

You would have loved the twist if it had just been a little earlier.
Yeah, please, just two seasons earlier.

You said it’s part of the game. You have to prepare for it. How does it change the dynamic of thinking about the game and thinking about whom you’re bringing close to the end?
Here’s my sense of the game, and I’m going to be completely honest. My girlfriend has been incredibly helpful in preparing me for this second time around. I’m really just parroting her advice, but really get rid of the biggest threat at six. Hopefully you have an idol. You play it at five. I can win at fire. That gets me to three. Really, I’m focused on the benchmark of six in terms of getting rid of the biggest threats.

You said that you think that you’re a big threat here. If you’re right and if this is a bunch of newbies and some returning players, what are the advantages and disadvantages of being a returning player in a situation like that?
Well, in a mixed season of newbies and returnees, the disadvantage to being a returnee is that there’s already a giant target on your back. The newbies have seen your season. They know how you play. They know what to expect from you. It’s easy to make an easy mark of me, like, “Oh, let’s get rid of that guy. He’s a huge threat.” But the advantage of it though is that I am a known quantity. In playing Survivor, it’s good to know things. It’s comforting to know things. I also think that in a weird way, I can be a shield for the entire newbies as well as the other returnees, because I’ll always be an easy vote. You can save me to close to the end and then cut my throat, because I’ll just be this umbrella protecting them from the rain.

We’re recording this just days after Ghost Island just finished airing. How much does it hurt you that your fake idol played a big part in that season? It kind of reminded people, “Oh, right, David Wright, and they keep talking about this incredible fake idol he made. Now it’s being played in this hugely dramatic fashion.” It sort of puts the target back on you, doesn’t it?
Yeah. On my couch, I was thinking, “Oh, this is so cool.” Then I get the phone call. It’s like, “Oh, this is so terrible.” Yeah, it’s an issue. It’s a huge issue. There’s no way to really combat it other than just to embrace it and say, “You know what, I’m a huge fan of the show. I was just trying to have some fun. Let’s all just have some fun together.”

You think it’s a mix of returning and new players. I don’t know if you saw this. I did a whole statistical analysis last year.
I did see this. Good news for me.

The numbers are pretty interesting. It’s basically, in a mixed season, eight out of 93 new players have made the final three, that’s 8.6%, while 11 out of 39 returning players have made the final three. That’s 28.2 percent. You have three-and-a-half better times a chance of making the end.
Yeah, I saw that post that you did. I read it. I was like, “Oh, this is really good news for me,” but then the other thought I had was we’re living in this era of Survivor where it’s constantly changing. I’m worried. Is this where it flips the other way?

So you’re not going to get the Boston Rob treatment, the way they worshiped him on Redemption Island, or the way folks were star-struck by Stephenie in Guatemala?
I don’t think anyone’s going to be star-struck by me, and I will say that the way they cast now, they’re casting super fans. From that sense, yeah, maybe it’ll be cool to meet me for five minutes, but then they’re just going to play as hard as they can and get rid of me. Yeah, it’s a real concern of mine., I’m really worried about it.

If that’s the case and you get out there, and there are new players, and you’re a returning player, what do you do to make them comfortable with you?
Honestly, Boston Rob did kind of do this. It’ll be a slightly different dynamic with me, but I really do need to cultivate this culture of us. Not me, me, me, me, or this is my return. This is our season, guys. We’re together. It’s us versus them, meaning maybe Kelley Wentworth’s tribe if she’s on a different tribe. I don’t know. But yes, I want to make it so that … I want to buck people up. I want to highlight their strengths. I want to, hopefully without being a leader exactly, but just inspire positive thinking going into these challenges, and hoping we can get a few wins and avoid some Tribals, because there’s just nothing worse than the first Tribal.

The first few days are so key and so important. Are you going to be as paranoid as you were last time?
It’s very funny you say that. I made these Survivor puzzle books. It has every puzzle ever featured in the show. At the back of the books, I put a list of things I need to just remember going out here my second time. At the very top of the list, it says, “Don’t get paranoid.” It’s not anything that I think I have too much control over, but I’m mindful of it. I’m aware of how much it almost destroyed my game the first time. I’m going to try to just project as much confidence as I can, and I’m hoping that people will come to me. I certainly on day two am not going to, in front of people, go looking for an idol. I certainly will look for an idol, but not in front of people the way I did the first time. (Interview.)

NEXT PAGE: David’s crazy puzzle prep and even crazier plans for the game

Timothy Kuratek/CBS

You just mentioned puzzles. You’ve been working on puzzles. That’s smart for anyone to do. That’s the number one thing you can really do to prepare yourself, because they’re so important to every challenge. Which puzzle are you most confident in doing, and which one are you least confident in doing?
I recreated over a dozen Survivor puzzles. I can do a lot of them very quickly. There’s the four colored cubes, the stacked cubes, where you have to get a different color on each side. I can do that very quickly. It has several solutions, but I memorized the one that’s the fastest and most kind of logical. The Cochran final immunity flame puzzle, I 3D printed that. I can do that in probably about less than two minutes. The tree puzzle from Worlds Apart and I think maybe One World, I can do that in less than 30 seconds probably. I recreated the hanging bat puzzle from my season.

This is my favorite one: I recreated a really great version of the Heroes, Healers, Hustlers color chute puzzle. I recreated that, and I cracked the code on that puzzle. Slide puzzles, I’m a whiz at. I feel very confident about all the puzzles I created. I am more worried about the swimming still. I’ve been working on that and I’m better, but I wish my swimming was as good as my puzzle solving. And this is a location where you do need to do some swimming. There’s no doubt about it.

I love you nerding out on those puzzles. Your Achilles heel is the physical stuff in the water, but you feel good about the puzzles.
I feel good about the puzzles, although my Achilles heel would be a puzzle that I’ve never seen before. Then I’ve got to figure it out in the moment. Actually, I realize I just have to take a step back if I run into a situation like that and just breathe, and just hopefully find the solution.

How have you changed since you last played? I’m not talking about your strategy going out. I’m just talking about you as a person, because that can change your outlook on other people, and how people view you. How are you different?
I’m much more confident than I was. I never ever believed, the first time I came out here, that I could do as well as I did. Never expected to get to day 38 and I did. Then it was like a dream come true, even though I didn’t get to 39 or win. It was more than I expected. I’m living my life a lot more than I was. I’m still afraid of flying. I really hate the flight here. But I have a girlfriend now. I’m going to come into this game just being much more confident.

I’ve been reading actually about what Olympians and SEALs do, and there are a number of things they do. One is positive thinking. I’m going to manifest that. That’s not something I used to do. There’s also setting goals, and there’s also visualization. On top of that, it’s also simulations that can approximate as close as you can get to the real thing. I think I’ve done that with my puzzles. I feel prepped.

But this is interesting, David, because you know Survivor loves their stories and their arcs and their transitions. In every season, they love the zero-to-hero storyline, right? You were the zero-to-hero! I’m paranoid, and I’m not self-confident, and this and that. Now you go in the game. You do really well. You’re just telling me how great your life is. Regardless of how you do, it’s a different arc for you now, isn’t it?
It is. I guess the one concern, and I think this could easily happen, it’s a slippery slope, but it’s sort of like that Dark Knight thing. Die a hero, or live long enough to see yourself become the villain. I think that maybe I will be more of a hopefully more lovable Heisenberg or something, but I am definitely headed towards the dark side, I feel like.

You mentioned Kelley Wentworth. She’s the only player you know that is out here. What do you make of her? Is this someone you think you want to work with, or are worried about? What are you thinking about Kelley?
Okay, so this is very interesting. I’m glad you asked this. Before I came out here, I was pretty sure I was going to be sitting with Kelley Wentworth. I thought she would be out here. When I saw her at the airport, I’m like, “Oh, yes, okay. I got my finger on the pulse.” Because I thought she was going to be out here, I just started boning up on Kelley Wentworth. She did a recap of an episode from my season, the merge episode. She was asked, “Who do you like right now?” She said no one. It’s like, “Well, if you don’t like me by episode eight, you’re not going to like me at all.”

I had this idea in my head that she doesn’t like me. I like her. She was one of my favorite things about Second Chance. I do think that, whether she likes me or not, I’m going to make what I think is a strong argument that we need to keep each other, because we’re shields for each other. We do have these big targets on our back. Let’s maybe get to the end. By the way, if I have to cut her, I have to cut her, but it’s a good strategy at the beginning anyway, or at least once a swap or a merge, to just say, “Look, let’s just ride this thing a little further together, because I think we need each other.” But can I tell you something else. I want to call my shot right now.

Yeah, do it.
I want to do something that’s never been done on Survivor. Correct me if I’m wrong about this. You are far more the expert than I am, but I want to create a fake advantage. I call it the Sole Vote advantage. My girlfriend and I kind of put this together, but basically someone will find it. Then it’ll say what it can do is it cancels voting at Tribal Council. Then they have to announce who they alone are going to send home. Then, of course, I’m hoping that’ll create some rift between whoever they announce and that person, and a little war can happen off to the side of me.

How are you going to create this note? They don’t give you a pen and a piece of paper, a parchment to write whatever you want on. Are you going to steal a parchment at Tribal Council and bring it home?
You know, it’s funny. I wanted to ask Jeff about that and I didn’t, but that’s one idea. Another idea I had is sometimes there’s some burlap that the rice comes in. We get paint at the merge to paint the tribal flag, so it requires definitely at least getting to the merge to make any of this happen. But I just think it’d be just so much fun.

Do you have any other crazy schemes that you were thinking about doing?
Not to be the Stones and play the greatest hits, but I do. I want to create another fake immunity idol for someone to find. The way I want to do it this time is … Do you remember the way the clues were in Heroes, Healers, Hustlers, where they’re painted on the tree?

Yup.
I want to paint a clue on a tree and then bury the idol next to the well. Then they’ll have to dig it up. If I can do a fake advantage, I can also do fake rules of the idol. I’ve kind of memorized a more truncated version to make the opportunity or the chance of slipping up with my calligraphy less of a problem. But yeah, those are the things I’m most excited about. I’ve got some other things I’m going to keep secret at the moment.

Why are you keeping them secret at the moment?
They’re not fully-formed. I want some more time to think about them. I don’t want to say something stupid right now.

Well, you know, with that idol though, again the same thing. Players are so smart now. As you’ve seen in the past few seasons, you need that parchment, right? You need to have some sort of note or else they’re not going to fall for it. You know what I said: I think they should have a rule where you have to get rid of the parchment immediately.
Yeah, I just read that, and I forgot it was you. That’s right. Was it you that said it should say something like…

Yup, burn it to activate the idol.
By the way, I might even steal that idea if you don’t mind. I give full credit to you in any exit interview I may do, but yeah, I think that’s a great idea, because it’s an issue out there. I think it would only encourage more fake idols, but who knows? Maybe we’ll end up in a season with like 20 fake idols.

For more Survivor scoop, follow Dalton on Twitter @DaltonRoss.

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