updated 05/22/2014 AT 1:00 AM ET
•originally published 05/22/2014 AT 11:25 AM ET
Stephen Fishbach was the runner-up on Survivor: Tocantins and has been blogging about Survivor strategy for PEOPLE since 2009. Follow him on Twitter @stephenfishbach. Erik Reichenbach is a Survivor fan-turned-favorite, a comic book author and artist. He placed fifth on both Survivor: Micronesia and Survivor: Caramoan. Follow him on Twitter @BloodyAmer1can.
“I don’t have any regrets.”
– Colby Donaldson, Survivor: Australia
Tony Vlachos won the million dollars on the finale of Survivor Wednesday, along with the title of Sole Survivor, and most importantly – the final Fishy. His victory capped off a season he dominated with big moves and flashy gameplay. Thanks to Tony, Survivor: Cagayan will go down as one of the top seasons in the history of the show.
Tony may be the best combined character/player ever. He has more theatrical scheming than Russell Hantz, and all the strategic chops of Boston Rob. Whether he was handing a fake idol clue to Jeremiah, building his spy shack, or turning Sarah against Cliff, at every moment Tony was both advancing his game and having fun.
He was both impulsive and strategic. “I dug myself a hole during the day,” he said at the finale, “and at night dug myself out of the hole.”
What makes Tony’s win even more impressive is the field he was playing against. “I cannot think of another season where more people came to play,” Jeff Probst said.
Tony Made All the Right Moves
Spencer, Tasha, Kass, LJ and Trish were all first-rank Survivors – not the brain-dead zombies of Redemption Island or the math-starved goofballs of One World. Tony outsmarted them all, reading them like they were the morning paper and blindsiding them before they could make their moves against him.
Many Survivor winners let circumstance make their decisions for them, but at every moment, Tony was scheming, choosing the optimal situation that would get him to the end.
On Wednesday night, two more roads diverged in the Cagayan woods. When Spencer lost a heartbreaking immunity at the final four, the young lad made the case that by keeping him in the game, Tony would ensure himself a spot at the final two – either because people would vote out Spencer, or because Spencer himself would take him.
It was a great last play by a phenomenal player. But ultimately, Tony voted out Spencer. Perhaps he already knew that he could sweet-talk his way into Woo’s good graces?
Woo’s Million-Dollar Mistake
Indeed, convincing Woo to take him to the final tribal was as great a move as any Tony made. The decision was a million-dollar mistake for Woo, who would easily have beaten a loathed Kass.
Still, at the final tribal, it seemed bitterness might win the day. Woo spoke persuasively about his sick mother and his code of ethics. Meanwhile, Tony seemed defensive, unable to really own his game. He repeatedly argued that “the only time I broke my promise to you is if you broke your promise to me first.” LJ and Jefra rolled their eyes in disbelief.
The Tony pile-on culminated with an emotional jury speech from Trish, who demanded to know if swearing a lie on his dead father’s soul and memory was worth a million dollars to Tony.
Tony said it was.
All seemed lost for Tony until an impassioned jury speech from Spencer. Tony’s longtime rival made the case that Tony deserved to win for his superb gameplay. “Tony was behind every strategic decision,” Spencer argued. “He blinded his alliance to what was going on around him in the game like a puppet master Tony played with the ferocity this game very rarely does see.”
Whether Spencer convinced the jury, or whether they were going to vote for him anyway hardly matters. Tony won the game with eight of the votes. (Tash inexplicably voted against him.)
Congratulations on a win incredibly well-deserved. And I’ll see all of you for Blood vs. Water 2!