How Easy Is It to Win 'Survivor'?

Survivor contestants go through a lot—thunderstorms, the desert heat, separation from friends and family, limited food (if you don't count rats)—which is why I don't recall anyone ever describing CBS's reality show as "easy." That is, until now. The current season, Survivor's 19th, features a foul, brutish little tank of a man named Russell Hantz, who is arguably the biggest villain the show has ever seen. He's even worse than Richard Hatch.

Before the first episode was over, Hantz had done a season's worth of conniving, sidling up to the ingénues of the tribe and assuring his loyalty to all of them (a coterie he charmingly refers to as his "dumb-ass girl alliance"). Then he sowed discord among his own tribe, creeping around like a frat-guy prankster as the others slept, pouring out their canteens and throwing their socks into the bonfire. Under a moonlight sky, he weaved a tall tale about having braved Hurricane Katrina and losing his beloved dog in the process. He congratulated himself on his ingenuity, as though he was Ricky Gervais's character in The Invention of Lying. Why is he doing all this? Not to win the money, he says—he owns an oil company and doesn't need the million-dollar prize. He's doing it to show "how easy it is to win Survivor."

We've seen this kind of player on the show before, the player who comes in thinking he's the craftiest mastermind ever to wash ashore. Almost invariably, someone who plays the game that way never wins. The more overt the plotting, the more transparent the scheming, the more likely you are to go home without the island booty. You'd expect Hantz to be a marked man, given that my biggest hope for the season is that his face will sprout a bushy mustache, such that he can twirl it mischievously. Except that so far, everything he's done has, in fact, proved that Survivor is easier than it looks.

After being caught in his lies during the premiere, he still managed to redirect the tide toward Marisa, who had committed the grave sin of seeing through him. He took out another rival, Betsy, the street-smart cop, in the second episode. Most astonishingly, he managed to find an immunity idol hidden at camp without a single clue, merely by sticking his head in every dark hole he could find until it turned up—the first time in the show's history an idol had been found this way. Could it be? Could reality television's toughest challenge actually be a cakewalk?

For Hantz, the answer could be maybe so, because he's unlike any Survivor player we've seen before. Not just because he's so gleeful in his malice, but because he may just be a perfect storm of brains and brawn. The type of contestant to play this type of cerebral con game is usually someone slight in stature, who has no choice but to rely on mental and social prowess to avoid being voted off. Hantz, meanwhile, is 5 feet 6 and 200 pounds, all of which appear to be lean, solid muscle. Even if the tribe caught onto his chicanery and wanted to give him the boot, could they afford to? He's easily the strongest member of their tribe, and given how physical the immunity challenges can be, is he the one you want to get rid of? Episode two featured a rugbylike mud brawl so brutal that host Jeff Probst ejected a player for being overly aggressive (yet another Survivor first). Love him or hate him, Hantz is an asset and, combined with his nonstop angling, he could be hard to beat.

Then again, he could go down in flames. Hubris doesn't get you far in Survivor, and Hantz might be too cocky to get very far. He's self-congratulatory about having influenced the first two votes, but this early in the game, that's not difficult to do. Everyone has just arrived, bonds have not formed, and strengths have barely been evaluated. It doesn't take much to push the first few votes in any direction. He has an immunity idol, but that doesn't guarantee anything. After all, in order to be spared he'd have to play it before the votes are read at tribal council, and if his dumb-ass-girl alliance turned out to be not so dumb after all, he would never see the blindside coming.

Plus, for all his craftiness, he seems a bit doltish, or at least incapable of forethought. No matter how tight a player thinks his social game is, there's no better way to ensure advancement in the game than for your tribe to win every challenge. Having people show up to challenges dehydrated and sockless is counterproductive. And if he were to make it all the way to the final vote, he'd have to convince a jury of the peers he scorched that he deserves the prize, and in Survivor, deservedness means different things to different people. If the jury decides to award the prize to the person who is the sneakiest while appearing to be the least sneaky (which is often the case), Hantz is definitely outgunned.

In either case, the show has found a breakout star in Hantz, and they know it. Every promo for the show has him front and center, insulting his fellow players and being generally obnoxious. I'm not convinced he can go all the way—some previews have suggested a coup is imminent—but after many hit-and-miss seasons of Survivor, this is the first in some time that I'm sure I'll stick with until the winner is announced.