SURVIVOR: Island of the Idols

SPOILER ALERT: Read on only if you have already watched Survivor: Edge of Extinction.

A new Survivor winner has been crowned, and it is the most unorthodox winner in the history of the show. Chris Underwood only played 13 out of 39 days in the game, with the rest of his time being spent with the other people voted out on Edge of Extinction. But he is now holding a check for a million dollars as the winner of season 38.

How did the impossible become possible? Not only did Chris make a flurry of huge moves — like convincing Lauren to give him her immunity idol, winning the final immunity challenge, and then giving up that immunity to face Rick in a final four fire-making race — once he won the contest to get back in the running, but he actually started plotting his endgame while sitting on Extinction Island.

We spoke to the freshly minted winner and he revealed that he asked his fellow losers at Extinction what he needed to do to win their votes if he got back in the game, and then used that information to chart an unlikely path to victory. Read on for more juicy tidbits from the new champ on how he made it happen.

SURVIVOR: Edge of Extinction
Credit: CBS

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You’re a huge fan and student of this game so tell me how weird it must feel to have won, but also to have won after only “playing” 13 out of 39 days. Nobody has ever won like that before.
CHRIS UNDERWOOD: Yeah, it had to take some pretty big swings and a home run at every at bat. And knowing that going into it, I had a lot of time on the Edge of Extinction to think about what it took to win and what I needed to do if I was fortunate enough to get back in. There came a point where really right before I got back in the game, I was totally okay with the outcome. You know, I’d grown so much as a person out there for 28 days with just my thoughts, and so if I didn’t get back in the game and win, it would have been fine. So it’s just been an unreal experience. I’m still trying to feel it out.

You and I spoke the day before the game, and I asked you specifically what you thought about Dom’s decision not to give up immunity and take on Wendell in the Ghost Island final four fire-making. They had just aired before you started filming and Wendell went on to win. How much was what happened to Dom in your head when you decided to go for it and give up your immunity to take on Rick Devens?
Yeah, I mean, you look at the entire season and kind of the narrative of the show, and every aggressive player got their head lobbed off. And we had an aggressive season. And I think it was because we had just seen Ghost Island and how that played out. And so I knew that if I was going to make it to the end, I had to take off the necklace. I had to. I still think that if Dom had done that, he would’ve won. But it’s really, really hard when you’re 100 percent guaranteed, so secure, and you got that necklace around your neck, it’s really hard to take it off. But it was the only shot I had at getting Rick out of the way.

When did you make the decision, Chris? Because we saw you tutoring Gavin and Julie. When did you make that decision that you were going to take off the necklace?
Day 25. Day 30. Day 35. I mean, it wasn’t a day-38 decision. I knew if I was going to get back in the game, I had to be extra aggressive. I had to be flawless. And so I knew that I had to win immunity, and I knew that I had to take the necklace off, like, days before. Because I needed to prove to this rockstar cast and the rockstar jury that I had what it took and I was able to make contact on the swings that I took.

If you don’t go to fire and Rick loses anyway, do you still think you beat Gavin and Julie at the final 3, or did you need to make that bold play to win the game?
I needed that bold play to win. I wasn’t willing to place my bet on three days of gameplay. I needed four. I needed fire to win. And so that decision was pretty clear. And so I had to take it. And I told Rick, “Man, if you make fire and you win, whether it’s against me, Gavin, Julie, you win the game.” I mean, it was clear. And I was okay with casting my vote for Rick if I lost. I was at peace with that decision. So it made sense for me to take him because whatever happened I was either promulgating my own success or promulgating his, you know, propping that up and being given an extra boost for the Final Tribal.

How huge were the connections you made on Extinction Island in terms of helping you win this game?
It’s pretty clear that this game, I mean, I’ve heard Jeff say it, this is not an athletic game. This is, really, it’s not as much a strategic game, it’s a social game. It’s the blood of the blindside, you know? You crave that. And you’re going to have dirty hands, but there is a way to take people out of the game where they’ll want to vote for you at the end. And so, yeah, it was definitely something that I had to overcome.

How were you feeling about your chances when you were walking into that Final Tribal Council. I’m sure you were doing jury math in your head, thinking, “Maybe I got this guy, maybe I don’t have this person.” How are you feeling about it?
Part of what I did before I got back into the game, which, again, I was one of 11, right? But my strategy was to have really legitimate conversations with people, saying, “Hey, if I get back in this game, I’ve got a pretty good idea of what needs to happen, but what exactly needs to happen to earn your vote?” I remember Wardog was like, “If you try to go out and win every immunity challenge, you’re not getting my vote.” If you make it to the end and win immunity, you’re not getting my vote.”

And so that was one small tidbit. I said, “Okay, I’ve got to throw a challenge. I cannot win my way to the end. I’ve got to be vulnerable for a vote, maybe see an advantage come into play and then make a big move, and do all those within a short period of time.” So, you know, that played a big role for sure.

Which challenge did you throw?
The first challenge when I got back into the game, when Julie won that challenge. It was pretty clear that I was behind. But when Julie started getting ahead of me, it was me encouraging her, trying to help her get through. And Rick said to me, like, “Chris, what are you doing? We had an alliance. Why are you letting her win?” And I was letting her win because I knew I needed to let her win and then survive a vote. And so I placed my cards on that and then she was kind enough to take me on the reward challenge. And even at that point, I had already known that Rick’s idol was real. So the entire reward lunch with Lauren, myself, and Julie was all about intel and gathering more information, and coming up with a good plan to work with Rick to get us both to the Final Four.

Obvious question, but what are you going to do with the money?
I got married about two-and-a-half weeks ago. And my wife gave me the okay to spend a little time without kids to see the world. And so part of it’s going to that. You know, part of it’s going to savings. And part of it’s going to giving back. But I’m pretty excited to live out a kid-less marriage for a couple years, prolong that honeymoon, and really enjoy some time with my wife.

How are you feeling about the chance to maybe come back and play Survivor again after this?
I feel really at peace with my Survivor experience. I know it’s not the traditional experience that most people get. But it couldn’t have ended better for me. And I grew so much. I think for now I’m going to sit on the sidelines and be a fan, enjoy the game from the sidelines. But, who knows. A few years from now, things might change.

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SURVIVOR: Island of the Idols

Strangers starve themselves on an island for our amusement in the hopes of winning $1 million, as host Jeff Probst implores them to "Dig deep!"

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