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Boston Rob is back to 'kick everybody's ass one more time' on Survivor: Winners at War

The Redemption Island champ teases a brand-new secret strategy.
February 11, 2020 at 11:00 AM EST

Boston Rob has never lacked confidence. When I spoke with him before Survivor: All-Stars, Rob told me to save the tape from the interview because he was guaranteeing victory. It didn’t quite work out that way. It actually worked out even better! He made it to the very end, and then married the woman who beat him.

Perhaps the only thing Rob Mariano is better at than Survivor is giving interviews before playing Survivor. Because much like that epic pre-All-Stars chat, Rob was not just a fountain of Survivor knowledge when we spoke the day before filming began on Winners at War (which premieres Feb. 12 on CBS), but he was also a quote machine, delivering classic lines along the way. In a fascinating chat, Rob explained how he convinced Amber to come back and play (hint: it involved The Amazing Race), answered whether he would sacrifice his wife to win the game, revealed why he is not feeling Sandra after their time together on Island of the Idols (while mentioning whom Sandra couldn’t stop talking about), explained why air time can get you voted out, and teased a secret new strategy: “Imagine controlling the game from the outset, from both sides.”

Read on for what can only be considered a Survivor clinic, and a must-read for any fan.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Well, this is a surprise. I didn’t think you were going to be here because we saw you were back for 39, but you pulled double duty! Tell me about the decision to come back not once, but twice, in different capacities.
BOSTON ROB MARIANO: Actually, I was done after season 22. I had finally won the game. That’s all I wanted to do, and I was content. I always said that I probably wouldn’t come back to this game unless there was a unique opportunity or something that made sense. And Jeff [Probst] called me in December, pitched me the idea of Island of the Idols, and I thought it’s a pretty cool concept. I get a chance to give back, kind of show people what I know.

Then, at the same time, it’s been almost nine years at the time. Let me see if I can go out there and still do it. And the good news is, I can still do it. But then of course, one caveat comes with the other, and he asked me about 40. I’ve always felt that I’m going to have a huge target and I wouldn’t have much of a shot in a season like this. But at the end of the day, Survivor has given me so much over the years and I’ve learned that it’s really difficult to play this game without regret. And I thought about how I would feel the morning season 40 premiered if I wasn’t a part of it. It’s such an epic adventure and it’s been such a huge part of my life that I had to be a part of it. So that’s why I decided to come back, and to kick everybody’s ass one more time.

Did anything about your season 39 mentoring experience change your thinking heading into playing again on 40?
No. The only thing really that happened on 39 that would affect my gameplay in 40 is that I’ve spent a considerable amount of time with Sandra and everybody else has seen that. So the assumption is going to be that Sandra and I will work together, which we could possibly work together. But Sandra probably learned a lot about me and from me in the time that we’re on 39, and I also did about her. So even though we’re playing a different kind of game, we still had the idea that 40 might happen and we might both be there. She’s a smart player. She knows what she’s doing, and I’m aware.

Wow. What were the discussions like at home with Amber about not just one of you coming back — which would have been a fair amount of conversations in itself — but both of you coming back?
There are a lot of ways to look at this. People could see it as it’s going make my target even bigger and harder. Well, you can look at it like we’ve got two shots to win this thing. You could look at it that I have somebody in this game that’s not going to work against me, but I don’t know if she’s going to be on my team or not. I can’t really help her if we’re on different teams, and she can’t help me. But Amber is a pretty tough customer, and I think she can handle herself.

Were you arm-twisting her or was she arm-twisting you to come out here?
I told her she had to come. I mean, that’s what it came down to. She wasn’t too happy about it. But sometimes you have to do things for the betterment of the group. In all seriousness, she’s very content being a mom at home and didn’t really need this adventure. But I wanted it and I kind of thought back to the Amazing Race All Stars. I did not want to do that. I would have had a bad taste in my mouth after the first one, but my wife asked me to do it. And sometimes you do things when your wife asks you to, and sometimes you do things when your husband asks you to.

Yeah, you guys were clearly robbed in the first Amazing Race — no pun intended. But when the airplane was brought back to the gate… You should be sitting here as both a Survivor winner and an Amazing Race winner. It has to sting a little bit. But look, if you guys both end up at the end, which you’ve done before, does it matter who wins?
No, it doesn’t matter who wins. But I mean, it doesn’t matter who wins in the broad scheme of things…

It doesn’t matter to you?
In the house maybe, a little bit of bragging rights. No. I’m under no false illusions. I have an uphill climb ahead of me, and it’s going to be monumental. It’s going to be a lot of work to get it done. But if anybody can do it, it’s me. I feel that. It’s crazy, I know! I love to gamble. I know what the odds are, but I’m telling you, if anybody can pull it off, I can.

So I’m going to work tirelessly like I did in Redemption. I mean, Redemption was different. I had a bunch of people that never played the game. It was a lot easier. Everybody here not only has played the game, they’ve won the game. They know what they’re doing. They’re not gonna fall for the one-two. You’re going to need the three, four, five, six. Maybe even the seven, eight, nine, 10, too.

But there’s ways to figure things out. I’m not the only target out here. I know that. I know there’s other people that are feeling the heat right now too. And if those people are smart enough that they can keep their egos in check, then there’s a possibility that we could have some pretty epic alliances. We could get some people to work together that have never worked together before and set aside whatever we need to set aside to get to where we need to get to and then have it out. But not all those people with targets can set their ego aside.

Tell me about the pregame meetings back home. You guys all know each other. We know that you’re friends with Tyson and some of these other people. So tell us what that’s like, because I know people are trying to reach out to each other. People are trying to reach out to you, and you know that people are trying to reach out to other people at the same time. So how do you handle that?
I don’t play that. I don’t play it at all. I did not call not one single person, maybe to my detriment, but I have always believed that I’m better building and fostering relationships in person. Now, I understand, like on Game Changers, Sandra told me on 39 that everybody out there had their pre-existing alliance before they got to the beach and if you weren’t a part of it, then you were gone, one, two, three, four, and that might happen to me.

I hope it doesn’t, but it might. I’ve been friends with Tyson a while. There’s a lot of these guys I don’t know. Really, I’ve only met maybe three of those people out here. So there’s a lot of relationships that I don’t have. It’s kind of weird if I pick up the phone and dial up Yul, who I’ve never spoken to or met in my life. “Hey, buddy, how’s it going? Look it, I’m just really looking forward to working with you out there.” It’s not genuine. People pick up on that, and I don’t want that. I want to get out there in the moment and see what I can do. You’ve got to be able to maneuver and adapt in this game, that’s paramount in this game. The game’s evolved. It’s changed over the years.

I’m curious about that. Do you think there’s a learning curve for you? Because it is a different game than even from when you last played.
Yeah, it is a different game. And look, I’m not going to be the old guy in the club going, “Look, back in my day, this was how we did it.” But still, the basic premise where you vote people out and then you have to have them come back and ask them to give you the money hasn’t changed. Some of them play fast, some of them play slow. It’s tough because you’re going to have to adapt and figure it out, and there might be something new that nobody’s done before. There might be something beyond what everybody else is seeing. Something that I’m thinking about that if it happens, it could make things go a lot differently. Something that nobody’s ever seen.

What’s that thing you’re thinking about?
I don’t want to say.

Why can’t you say it?
Because I don’t want to.

Why? Say it!
No.

Come on! Put it out there.
Let’s just put it this way: Everybody thinks this game needs to be played a certain way. It’s always been played from the beginning. Rich, or whoever said, “Look it, we’ll make an alliance, we’ll team up. We’ll go.” Somewhere along the way, that got taken away and it was like, “You know what? We can switch whenever we want. You can’t tell me what to do. I’m not the boss of you.” Well, maybe there’s a combination of that along with…

Okay, look it, without going too much into it, basically what it comes down to is this: Survivor is and always has been a numbers game. It’s a numbers game, but it’s not a numbers game based on just straight people saying, “I’m going to do this because this is the most realistic and the most logical way to do things.” People don’t act logically in this game. Behind each person is emotions, and that’s what drives them. They’ll sit there at the end and tell you, “I’m going to vote for the person that I think played the game best.” That bulls—. If you did them dirty, then that’s what’s going to be resonating inside of them. So you have to look at each person individually and figure out what’s in their best interest. But you have to go beyond that. Is there something collectively as a group that would benefit everybody?

Pay attention here, that would benefit everybody in this group to say, “Look it, if we do this, then everybody wins to a point, and then at that point we can go our separate ways.” I mean, look it, we don’t know who else is here. We don’t know how the tribes are divided. We don’t know anything, but there is common ground for everybody. And if you’re able to figure out what that is and what it makes sense for everybody else to do something, especially in a season like this where everybody has targets and the people that don’t have targets are scared because they have no friends, that they don’t know anybody.

You have to find whatever it is, whatever that fear is inside of them and harvest it, and it can be done. It’s going to be done so fast, it’s going to be so quick. It’s like how they say it’s just like seconds into the game. It’s true! It’s true! Now, I mean, maybe this works. Maybe it doesn’t. If it does, then how great would it be to be able to control the game from both sides? That’s never been done. Imagine controlling the game from the outset, from both sides.

What do you mean from both sides?
You’re going to have to wait and find out.

What do you mean by this?
I’m not telling you.

Come on.
Imagine.

Tell me.
Imagine! Imagine if you had the dominant alliance on both tribes from the outset.

All right. We’ll see. I think that might involve you and might involve your wife. We’ll see. But what if you and your wife are on the same tribe?
What if I have to sacrifice my wife?

Would you do that?
I’m here to win, brother.

You’re here to win, and I love it. How do you think the others see you? You’re evaluating all of them. What do you think their take on you is now?
Let’s go back to season 8, Survivor: All-Stars — the first time they brought returning players back. What was the criteria for voting people out then? It was they came after the most popular players.

The winners.
Yeah, and the most popular, the big names, and who was left? It was like, “Who were those people?” That was me and Amber, voted off seventh in Survivor: Marquesas and Amber didn’t talk too much in Survivor: Australia. And they were able to just go along under the sunset and nobody really saw them. But that mentality has kind of existed through the years whenever there’s been a returning season. And it wasn’t necessarily if you were a winner or if you were a physical threat, it became, are you a threat to my air time? Are you going to be a bigger character than me?

Because if they’re showing you all the time, then how am I going to get on the screen? Which is kind of sad. But that’s what it is. So being able to recognize that and the motivation behind people’s actions actually gives you a leg up on the competition. So going into this season, I mean, public enemy number one is sitting right here in front of you.

Look it, they’ve given me more than anybody else in the history of this game. This is the sixth time I’ve been out here. My wife and I have both won. We got married on TV. We have a beautiful family. We did the Amazing Race two times. I get it. From their point of view, they built a frigging statue of me and they’re driving the boats by it every single day.

I’m literally looking at it right now. It’s right behind you.
They literally didn’t leave until the day after the promo so that every other person here saw that they made a statue of me, and if they didn’t see it they get to see it right now, because it’s right in front of their faces. I don’t know what Jeff thinks I’m going to be able to do, but he’s expecting a lot and I’m going to give it to him. But man, they make it tough.

But to get back to my point, it’s always been about more than just who’s a threat. It becomes that, are you a big character? Are you someone that’s going to take up everything? And I get it that I’m public enemy number one in that capacity. But I can also be helpful to your alliance. I do have a relationship with Tyson. Look at the guys here. I’m 43 years old now. I’m not 25. I’m the old guy in the club. These guys, look at Jeremy and Tyson and Wendell. These guys are fit. They’re ready to go. I look like some guy that plays football in Boston that’s too old and slow. There’s no way he could win.

So that’s what you’re going to try and do, is underplay yourself? Good luck with that, dude.
No, I’m not going to underplay myself. I’m going to try to create relationships and alliances with people that I can trust and figure out a way to see if I can control this game. I drive, bro. I don’t ride. I’m not going to play who I’m not. It’s all written down. They’ve all read the Boston Rob rulebook. They should know by now. They should know.

I’m not going to try to be somebody that I’m not. It’s not going to be easy, but if I can hook up with Parvati and Kim and other people that need protection too, and they can set their differences aside, then we can do some business. And I think Parvati and Kim are smart enough to do that. I do. I believe they are smart enough to know that they can use me for a while and we can be mutually beneficial to each other in that capacity.

That’s why I voted Sandra off first when you asked. Because Sandra is too stuck in her own head. Even on 39, the whole time out there, all she’s talking about is her crown and Parvati this and Parvati that. Sandra hates Parvati. She told me.

Why?
Because of jealousy. That’s why. I mean, I love Sandra. Don’t get me wrong. I think she’s awesome, but I know how dangerous she is. And I know the second Sandra sees me out there and she knows Amber’s out there, she’ll use that against us as soon as she can. She’ll try to use it for her at first, and then when it no longer benefits it, she’ll flip it against us. I can see three or four steps ahead, and that’s what you have to do in this game. On season 39 she was like, “Look it, how many days did you play, Rob?” “Why? I have no idea. I have no idea how many days I played Survivor. Why?” “Because I want to beat your record.”

Are you that dumb? You’re telling me this out here now and you think I’m going to forget in two weeks from now? I mean, it’s unbelievable. It’s unbelievable just what I heard come out of her mouth. It’s like, “How did you win twice?” And I figured out how she won twice. It’s pretty genius.

How?
You just sabotage your own alliance from the get-go. She made like she was with them and then as soon as there was any hint of any chance of dissension, she just immediately jumps ship, goes the other way. She’s the last person standing from her alliance and she sits with two people from the opposing alliance that have pissed off more people than her and she slides into it. It’s pretty smart. It’s really smart, but someone like that, I can’t play with because after the merge, she’s never a target and I always am. You understand?

She’s always going to sit out of any challenge to eat food and I never can. I’m always fighting for my life. Someone like her, if they make it through the first three Tribal Councils, she’s good. They start taking out the big threats early now because they know there’s going to be a switch in episode three or four or five.

It’s tough for an athletic dude to go deep in this game. It is. They make it hard. So that mentality, you have to understand what each person is coming from. That’s where Sandra is coming from. Parvati might not be coming from that spot. Kim’s not coming from that spot. Amber is not coming from that spot, but you have to understand individually where each person is coming from and what their motivation is. Yeah, everybody wants to win. I know that same motivation, but really, what drives them? What’s going to make them feel safe?

Someone like Yul, who hasn’t been out here forever, or Ethan, who hasn’t been here for a time. I know Ethan has relationships with Parv and some other people too, but Yul doesn’t talk to many people. He’s like, “Man, who can I grab onto?” He needs a friend. That dude needs a friend. Meanwhile, he was in the time machine. He looks like he just got off season 16 or whatever it was he was on. That dude hasn’t aged a day. Man.

Season 13. It’s been 27 seasons. Unbelievable.
Yeah, but each person has a different motivation. So we’re not going to sit here and go through all 20 people, but I’m really good at figuring out what people need, what their motivation is, and trying to be able to fulfill that for them. And if I can do that and I can gain a little bit of trust, and it’s hard to trust me, I know they shouldn’t, but in the beginning you can start to build trust by doing what you say you’re going to do and remaining loyal.

Look, every single time I’ve played this game, if I didn’t win, somebody from my alliance won the game. I stick with my plan and I go with it. Unless I find out you’re coming against me, I don’t really deviate from it. Now granted, I might have many plans with different people. But ultimately, from day one, the deal I make on day one is the deal I’ve always stuck to.

Yeah, but everyone thinks that they’re your number one.
Well, they should know better than that.

Is there any chance you say to these people, “Hey, if you want to be part of an epic season, keep me around”? Is that something that plays at all?
No, they don’t care about that. Nobody cares about keeping Rob around for an epic season. What they care about is what gets them further in this game. And that’s it.

Are you destined to be a pre-jury boot or make it all the way to the end? Is that your style? Because you’re aggressive, you’re a leader, you take command, and your game has been so interesting because either you can’t make it there because everyone’s like, “We got to get rid of this guy,” or you make it all the way to the end.
It’s kind of a lot like my personality. I get it, I’m polarizing. People either like me or they don’t like me, but I don’t really care. That’s how I am, and I play this game to win. Whether you believe it or not, there is a correct way to play this game. There is a correct way and there’s an incorrect way, and the object of this game is to play this game correctly.

And even if you do everything right, you could still not win because there’s a luck factor involved. It’s in a lot of ways like a poker tournament, where you have to play perfectly but you also have to get lucky. And playing perfectly doesn’t mean always winning everything. It means making the right decision in the moment for that particular circumstance, and just because you make one decision in one particular circumstance, if it’s a different season with different players, it could be something different.

There are so many variables that come into every decision, but there is a correct and an incorrect play in each situation — not only for me, but for you or whoever else is playing too. So to be able to analyze all of that information and do it very quickly and accurately, that’s the key. That’s the key to this game, to be able to take it all in very quickly, see what this one needs, see what this one needs, this one.

And then, now you play your odds. If we do this, what are the repercussions going to be? Who’s going to get mad here and how is all of this going to end up benefiting me? And is it good in the long term or the short term? There’s a lot that goes into this, bro. Really, there is. There’s a lot. I mean, in my mind there’s a lot. In Sandra’s mind, it might be as simple as, “Well, as long as it’s not me.”

Does it frustrate you then that the game has become even more about that luck? The more advantages that get added, the more idols added, that luck factor has really almost overwhelmed the strategic factor in a lot of senses.
It’s hard, but at its core Survivor’s still a social game. So even if you get unlucky, if you’re able to foster good relationships, you might still be able to skirt through. It’s hard. It’s hard. The game’s hard, but that’s why it’s good and it’s not fair in all respects. It’s fair in the sense that they’ll never do anything that’s not even, but it’s not fair that, who says how the tribes are divided? Or when there’s a tribe switch, or what happens there? That stuff is not fair for everybody. Just because if you get lucky or don’t get lucky, that doesn’t matter.

At the end of the day, this game is the purest adventure game that’s ever been invented. They can play it. This is season 40. We’ve been doing this for 20 years. They could do it for another 20 years with the same premise and it will always ring true, because basically you take a microcosm of all different people, of all different walks of life, put them in a really uncomfortable situation, and mix it up and see what’s going to happen. And every time the result’s different.

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

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