For more information on Survivor and its rules click here, or there is more information about the season at Survivor: Borneo

Dr. Sean Kenniff was a contestant on the ultra-popular first installment of Survivor: Borneo. Sean has been called "an idiot" by some of his fellow contestants for the way he played the game. But in the same breath they praise him as one of the nicest guys they know. He started the game on the Tagi tribe, a New York City doctor who hoped that his time on the show would possibly propel him into acting. Dr. Sean finished fifth place overall, the last contestant surviving who was not in the Tagi Alliance.

At the beginning of the game the contestants were divided into two tribes, Pagong and Tagi. Through the course of the first six episodes, each of the tribes lost three members, leaving Colleen, Greg, Gretchen, Gervase, and Jenna for Pagong; and Kelly, Richard, Rudy, Sean and Sue for Tagi. At this point the tribes merged into one, changing the game into an individual contest. There were many different strategies used by the contestants at that point, but Sean chose a strategy that has never been duplicated in any of the later installments of Survivor.

Philosophy of Sean’s strategy:

Before a discussion of the psychology and the philosophy behind Sean's voting strategy there needs to be a discussion of the general psychology of the contestants around him.

For most of the show the contestants grappled with the ethical dilemmas that the game posed. It was difficult to get to know these people, to develop real relationships with them and then eliminate them one by one.

Some felt that the name ‘Survivor’ implied that the winner should be whoever could survive the island the best. People who provided food or built the shelter should survive longer then those who just sat around relaxing. Many felt it was unethical and "dirty" to form alliances, to plot and scheme, and to have a voting strategy beyond your personal feelings for a person or their ability to contribute to island life.

'Alliance' was a four letter word on Survivor: Borneo. The Pagong tribe refused to even consider forming an alliance; they felt it was dishonest and dirty. On the opposing tribe of Tagi, Richard Hatch had no problem with scheming his way to the million dollars. Rich knew that he needed the protection of a voting alliance if he wanted to advance in the game. He formed a tight bond with Rudy Boesch, and by aligning with Susan Hawk and Kelly Wiglesworth formed an alliance of four. Due to the feelings of the people around them, they kept their alliance a secret for most of the game. The “Tagi Alliance,” as they came to be known, voted as a unit, insuring their own safety until the final four when they were forced to turn on each other.

These were the two avenues of thought after the merge. Pagong, plus Sean from Tagi, thought one way. They felt that the best person should win and alliances were immoral. The members of the Tagi Alliance felt another way: that the game of Survivor existed in a moral vacuum of sorts. There were definite rules to the game, and people's feelings should be taken into account (if nothing else but for the fact that they might be a jury member who decides the outcome of the game). But what it came down to for the Alliance was that by aligning yourself with others you protected yourself, improving your chances to win the money.

Sean’s Strategy:

While his tribe mates at Tagi formed a voting alliance, Sean never intentionally joined them (though his strategy would play right into their hands, intentional or not).

Sean seemed to have a hard time with voting people off. Most of the contestants did, (besides Rudy, Sue and Rich) but everyone still managed to find reasons to vote for other people. Sean wanted to find a fair system, where his vote wasn't a judgment of the person. He had to vote for someone, he couldn't vote for himself, so he needed a way to make himself feel better about taking away someone's chance at winning a million dollars. Sean decided that if he voted based on an alphabetical order he could remove his guilt and at the same time not hurt people's feelings.

Sean’s alphabet voting strategy began after the merge using the first names of the contestants to determine his boot order. Unfortunately for the members of the old Pagong tribe, their names came first in the alphabet; Colleen, Greg, Gretchen, Gervase, and Jenna. Tagi members on the other hand were later in the alphabet; Kelly, Richard, Rudy and Sue. Even Sean’s name came after all of the Pagong names.

His first target was Colleen Haskell, who was America’s Sweetheart by that point in the game. Sean openly admitted he would vote for Colleen, apologized and said this was just his system. When people heard his strategy they rolled their eyes and Sue told him how stupid he was for voting like that. Sean felt it was the right strategy and stuck to it. He said in Tribal Council that he “doesn’t have a malicious bone in his body.” When it came down to it he wasn’t willing to sacrifice his morals in order to win, a moral stance in a sometimes immoral game.

This first vote after the merge was an interesting one. Besides the Tagi Alliance and Sean (if you call his system a strategy), no one else had any strategy going into the vote. Six different people received votes, with Gretchen being voted off by the Alliance. Their original target was Greg, but he won immunity, saving himself from the vote.

In the next episode, Sean moved down his list to Gervase. Luckily for Gervase he saved himself from Sean’s vote by winning immunity. Sean moved down his list again, this time to Greg. Greg was in trouble. He had been the earlier target of the Alliance, and now they were assured that he would also get Sean’s vote, making him an easy target. Sure enough, that night he was voted out.

The end of the Alphabet Strategy:

Sean felt that the beauty of his system was that the person he targeted had a shot to save themselves. Because Gervase had won immunity, Sean moved down the list to Jenna, the spark-plug cheerleader. By this vote the Tagi Alliance was showing cracks. Kelly was having ethical problems with the game and told the Alliance that she wanted to vote her conscience. The Alliance knew who Sean was voting for so they allowed her to have that freedom, knowing that they had the sufficient votes to eliminate Jenna.

At the same time, Gervase, Jenna, and Colleen had finally decided that if they didn't act soon they would all be voted off in order. They formed the first Pagong voting alliance and threw their votes against Rich. Of the eight votes, Rich got three votes from the old Pagong members and Jenna got three votes from the Tagi Alliance. The two wildcards were Kelly (choosing not to vote with the Alliance), who voted for Sean (he annoyed her), and Sean, who voted according to the alphabet, casting the deciding vote against Jenna. This was the vote that changed the game. There was a look of shock on Sean’s face as he finally woke up to what had been going on for the last few votes. He realized that his vote was causing people to leave, the opposite of what he intended. That night after the vote, his fellow castaways asked him if he would just vote in his best interests and not worry about what others felt of him. This was the end of the alphabet strategy.

Instead of just basing this node on what the producers chose to include on the show, here is an excerpt from an interview with Sean about his voting strategy.

Interviewer: Sean, I must ask… what was the deal with the Alphabet Voting Strategy?

Sean: What people don’t understand was, I was trying to win! I needed the million dollars to pay off my student loans!

Interviewer: How in the world would an alphabet strategy help you do that?

Sean: All right, let me try to explain. First, I realized that the only way I could win was to set up a Rich/Sean finale. I couldn’t win against Gervase, the guy with three kids. I couldn’t win against Jenna, the mom with two kids. I couldn’t win against truck driver Sue or veteran Rudy. I’m a doctor, so that means I supposedly didn’t need the money as much as these other guys did. I could only win against Rich.

Interviewer: I’m with you so far.

Sean: Okay. So, if I let everyone know I was voting alphabetically, I could accomplish three things:

1. I could achieve an air of fairness and impartiality;
2. I could let everyone know who I was going to vote for in advance, in case someone wanted to add their vote to mine; and
3. I could target the guys from the OTHER tribe first. Rudy, Sue, and Rich all came at the end of the alphabet. Gervase, Colleen, Jenna and the other pretty young folk came first. Under my Alphabet Plan, Team Ugly – as we called ourselves – was spared.

In other words, I could be part of the alliance without being officially in the alliance, thus avoiding ticking off the jury at the final tribal council.

Interviewer: This sounds far more sophisticated than we were led to believe. The show was edited so the idea seemed wimpy and dorky, and not part of a grand strategy.

Sean: That was also my doing. I knew that during the one-on-one interviews, the producers asked the cast questions derived from previous interviews. For example, if Sue said something negative about Gervase, they’d go and ask Gervase, “Do you really believe Sue’s a nice person?” I didn’t want to give the producers any clue as to what my thinking was, so they couldn’t give it away to the others.

To most of America, Sean’s voting strategy seemed idiotic. He refused to join in any alliance, but by announcing his vote choice beforehand he armed the Tagi Alliance with the extra vote they needed. In a sense he was a part of the Tagi voting block but had no deals for protection later in the game. The interview above says that this was Sean’s plan, to feign impartiality while really looking for a way to eliminate others without hurting his image, duping both his fellow contestants and the producers of the show. There is a lot of skepticism about whether this is true or not (skepticism from both his fellow contestants and internet fan sites), or if he’s just trying to make himself look better after the show.

Genius or Idiot (or something inbetween)? You make the call.


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