Tony Vlachos on why 'losing helped me' for Survivor: Winners at War

The Cagayan champ says that "fear of failure is out the window now."

He then tried to kick into an even higher gear for his return on Survivor: Game Changers. There were plans to build a spy bunker. He also wanted to frame someone by finding an idol, planting it in someone else's bag, telling the tribe that person had an idol so they went through the framed player's stuff and found it, and then taking his idol back when nobody was looking. And then there were the "clones" — where Tony planned to carry little stones around in his pocket to represent his family members and then give them to people on his tribe as a symbol of ultimate trust, only Tony was not going limit it to one set of stones, so several different people could be carrying around Tony's symbolic family. He also took off at a full sprint to go idol hunting the second he hit the beach… right in front of all his tribemates.

Sadly, we were not treated to enough of Tony's shenanigans in season 34 due to his early exit, but the Cagayan champ says his less successful outing was just what he needed to prepare for his appearance on Survivor: Winners at War (premiering Feb. 12 on CBS). We sat down with one of the most entertaining players in Survivor history the day before filming began on season 40 to find out how losing changed him, and why "fear of failure is out the window now."

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Start us off with the update, Tony. What have you been up to the past few years since being on the show?
TONY VLACHOS: Since season 28, not 34. I don't even want to remember 34. But since 28, man, I won Survivor, invested the money in real estate, since then it's the gift that keeps on giving. I flip the properties over, I made a lot of money, I'm using some of the profits right now, actually. I'm in the middle of construction, building my new house that I'm going to live in with my family. I have to leave that all behind in the middle of construction, but hopefully it's worth it. Hopefully I can go back with some extra money.

Why come back and do this again?
The short and easy answer is money, you know what I mean? It's an opportunity to win a million dollars. You have one out of 20 chances to win a million bucks. You can't say no to that. The game itself, yeah, it's fun when you're in it. It's fun when you're in it and you have no choice but to play it to try to win, it's fun. You make the best of it, but just thinking about it, anticipating what you're going to go through sucks, man. It's really hard to say yes until that money factor comes in, and that's what makes you say yes.

You had some hesitation, then? You weren't an immediate yes?
I was an immediate yes, but then the hesitation came. But I'm impulsive, man. My first reaction was, "Yeah, I'll do it," but then I started thinking: Oh my God! These are former players that are going to play again. They know each other outside the game. I'm not going to have a shot like I did in Game Changers. They're going to vote for me, they're going to go after me right away. The sun's going to be beaming on me. The bugs are going to biting me. I'm not going to sleep, I'm not going to eat, I'm not going drink, I'm going to lose every challenge. All that stuff ran through my mind, but after I said yes, you still can go back and say no. I would never say no.

It's interesting because I remember talking to you after you won, and you were like, "I'll come back as many times they'll have me. I definitely love to play this game." But then I wondered if Game Changers changed your attitude with some of the sting of what happened there.
Game Changers actually helped me. Losing actually helped me, the fear for failure is out the window now. I don't care if I lose this game anymore, so I'm going to come in just like I did the first time. I wasn't scared of losing the first time, and that's why I won. Usually it's gambling, right? Scared money don't make money. You go into a casino with your rent money in your pocket, you're going to be scared to use it, and you're going to lose.

If you're going in there with money you don't care if you lose it, you're going to make money. That's usually the case, you're not scared. Now that I got that out the way, I've also seen how in season 28 when I blindsided my close allies, I was hurting them, and that bothered me. I don't like that stuff. I'm not a malicious person, I'm not vindictive, I don't like to see people get hurt. That's not my nature.

When I was blindsiding people that I cared for in the game, I grew close to them, it hurt, it bothered me. After the game, it bothered me for quite some time, and then in Game Changers when I got voted out, I was like, "Oh, you know what? It's not so bad." I got blindsided and it hurt, but you know what? The pain dissipates. The pain dissipates in a matter of days, and that's it. You're like, "Oh s—. Life goes on." You don't care anymore. So knowing these people — maybe they're not my friends, but I know of them from the Survivor family — it's going to be bothersome to vote some of these people out, but then I'm thinking, "Oh, you know what? They'll get over it just like I did." It's not that big of a deal.

What surprises do you have in store for us this season? Do you have some clones that you're working with? What do you have? I know you got some stuff.
That's what I was going to tell you, Dalton. This time I'm going to be boring in my pregame interviews because I am going into the game with nothing, I'm going into the game with a blank canvas because that worked for me the first time. The second time it didn't work for me because I went into the game with all these fantasies, spy bunkers, clonings, and blindsiding people. I was fantasizing about how it would play out, and I went into the game and my timing was off and it winded up costing me the game.

This time around, I'm like, "You know what? I'm not doing none of that. I'm not here to play Survivor, I'm here to play the players individually." That's a big difference. If you're going into the game of Survivor wanting to play Survivor, winning challenges — "I want to find idols, I want to do spy shacks and spy bunkers" — it's not going to work. I'm going to play each player individually and I'm going to handle the situation accordingly when it presents itself.

What are you going to do the first time you hit the beach? Because last time you took off in a full sprint, I believe.
That's exactly my point. I went out there with all these fantasies: Oh, as soon as I get there I'm going to look for an idol, I don't care if they know that. It was dumb of me to do, quite frankly, right? This time, I'm just going to go there, I'm going to kick back. I know it's going to be boring, but that's what I have to do. I have to just watch who's talking to one another, more so watch who's not talking to each other because I know all these players, they all know each other outside the game. If they're pretending that they're not close together, they're separating themselves from each other, I'm going to say, "You know what? That's a telltale sign right there. They got something going."

It's interesting you bring that up because returning player seasons are so different in that way, and you keep the Survivor community at arm's-length. You love Survivor, but you're not one of these people that are texting everyone and going to events all the time and stuff, and some of these people are like that, so how do you deal with that?
That's absolutely the truth, Dalton. I'm hoping the twists that Survivor will throw this season will break up some of the wolfpacks that formed relations outside the game. I'm not saying so much that they made deals outside the game, or alliances outside the game, but they know each other. They have closer bonds, there are people that play poker together, you have people that go to charity events together, you have people that are baptizing somebody else's child, so there's a lot of ties here.

Again, I'm sure that these people, they're not just winners, they're great players, right? It's like the best of the best pretty much, right? These are great players that happen to be winners. What I'm hoping is that they realize that: listen, there's always one winner. You can't have an alliance of five people that you bond with outside the game and think that you guys are all going to win. It's not going to happen. One of you is going to win, and I'm hoping that I can drill into their head, like, "Listen, you don't want to go with the person that cares for you outside the game, get really close to the end, and then blindside them, because he's going to be a juror that's not going to vote for you to win if you blindside them towards the end. You're better off getting rid of them first."

You're here before the game with a group of nine other men, all winners. You don't know the other people that will be playing with you, but you probably have some guesses. Among the group you're with, do you have some people that you're thinking: Okay, I want to go and work with this person already?
I don't want premeditate anything, but coming in, I think I'm going to want to align myself with two different groups. I want to align myself with a group that I know are close outside the game, and then I'm going to align myself with a group that I know are stragglers. Yul Kwon, I know doesn't do the politics that the other ones do. I know Wendell doesn't really do it, I know Ethan doesn't really do it, and I don't think Adam really does it.

I'm going to team up with them and say, "Guys, look, these guys —Boston Rob, Tyson, Jeremy — all those guys all hang-out together, they all know each other, they all do their thing. I'm with you guys if you need me as a vote. I'm going to say the same thing to Tyson. I'm going to say the same thing to Boston Rob, and Jeremy. I'm going say, "You guys, listen, I'm with you guys. Let's get rid of stragglers."

How do you think the other players see you? You've played twice, and you won playing a way that almost reset the game in terms of bouncing back and forth. How do you think they see Tony Vlachos?
I think they see me the way I see myself when I watch the TV, and that's like a big clown, to be honest with you. I make some good moves, but I'm like: "Look at this guy. This guy is serious right now?" It just worked out for me, man. Again, the stars aligned, I found idols, I beat the young lad in the auction, which gave me another idol, idol gives you power, it gives you confidence, so you really don't even have to use it, you just carry yourself in a different way in the game. You carry yourself in a bold manner where you can make these moves, where you can flip-flop like a fish out of water, and nobody's going to come after you. You can do that, so I think they're not going to take me too serious, which is a good thing, I guess. I want that.

What's your biggest weakness, Tony?
My biggest weakness is my personality, my character.

How is that a weakness?
Because I'm a clown. I go out there running around. I can't stop myself from doing silly things. I hope I don't rub these people the wrong way. These guys might not have the tolerance for that.

Isn't there something about that, though, just having fun with this experience? You're here to win the money, you said you're here for the money, and no one's ever going to question how hard you played, but you also definitely want to have fun when you do it.
Absolutely. It's just like work, right? You have to go to work for your salary, doesn't mean that you have to love doing it, but when you're there, you make the best of it, right? It's no different here. I'm here, I'm going to make the best of it. I'm going to have fun, I'm going to enjoy doing what I'm doing, I just don't want to rub these people the wrong way, like I said. People will laugh at you if they like you and they know you, but if they don't know me, they don't really interact with me, and they see me doing something stupid, they might say: "Oh, this guy's a cornball. Get him out of here." It could backfire, too.

What do you do with the idol situation out there? I know that you like to search for idols. We know there are some people here that have also found a lot of idols. We also know back on Heroes vs. Villains people that looked for idols were ostracized. So how are you going to manage that?
The person who comes up with the idea, that's trying to control the game and set the pace, by telling you: "All right, we shouldn't go look for idols." That's the person I'm going to make sure that gets targeted first. You're not going to control the game. This is our game, we're going to play it the way we want to play, not how you tell us to do that. Idols, I will go look for them, just like everybody else is.

Ben is going to go look for his bombs, we know that. We're all going to look for idols, but the timing is the key. The timing is the key. I'm not going to run off like I did the second time around. I'm just going to take my time, take it easy, relax, and when the time is right, I'm going to go strike.

How does it feel for you, just personally, to be asked back for season 40, because there are certain big, huge events. Season 20, Heroes vs. Villains, was a huge event for Survivor. Season 8, Survivor: All Stars, was a massive event. To be asked back for an anniversary season like this, what does it feel like?
Man, I'll tell you, Dalton, the way I think is, I'm just a dumb cop from Jersey, right? I applied to get on the show that I really liked. I was 99% sure I would never get a call, I'm like: Nobody's going to watch this audition video. You got to know somebody that knows somebody that knows somebody that referred you to these people. They're not going to watch me. They called me a week later. I couldn't believe it. I thought somebody was playing a trick on me. I wound up not only going onto season 28, but I won the season, right? That in itself is like a dream come true, right? Then they call me again for Game Changers. I didn't do so good on that one, but the point is they called me to come back on that.

Then they call me again for season 40, which the Super Bowl of Survivor, right? 20 years in the making to get to this point today, right? I can't even put it into words to tell you what the experience or the feeling is like. I just can't. I don't think there's any word that can describe that feeling I'll tell you, I have more butterflies now for this season than I did my first one, and my first one, I was very excited about.

Season 40, you have to imagine from production side, they're going to go big, with huge things. So you're telling me you're not going to be building any sort of spy shack, no spy bunkers? Come on.
That's not what I said, Dalton. I said I'm not going into it thinking about doing anything. But I'm going to do whatever I have to do to win, like I did my first time around. If I have to build 10 spy shacks this time around, I'm going to build 10 spy shacks, if I have to get an accomplice with me, that's going to help me, I'm going to do that. This time around, I'm going to do whatever I have to do, but it's going to be situational. I'm not going to go in there with the premeditated notion of doing these things.

What about the clones you promised in Game Changers?
I didn't get to do the clones.

Why not do them in 40?
Because these people watched the interviews and they watched me talking to you and telling you how it would work, watching all of them interviews. That's what these people do, they live and breathe this stuff. They know all about me, they know all about my bluffs, so I got to watch out how I bluff, also. They know everything.

For more Survivor articles, follow Dalton on Twitter @DaltonRoss, and for exclusive season 40 photos and video, follow Dalton on Instagram @thedaltonross.

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