“Survivor” Champion Yul Kwon – “People Assume I’m Going to Play a Clean Game”

“Survivor: Winners at War” (CBS)

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Editor’s Note: The players were separated by gender and didn’t officially know the theme of the season when this interview took place.

Another Editor’s Note: This interview was conducted across from the giant “Boston” Rob and Sandra heads at the Island of the Idols.


Winner of “Cook Islands” (2006)

Name: Yul Kwon

Age: 44

Hometown: Concord, California

Current Residence: Los Altos,  California

Occupation: Project Management


Gordon Holmes: Yul Kwon is at my interview station! This is a bucket-list interview for me.

Yul Kwon: (Laughs)

Holmes: Amazing. What have you been up to since we saw you last?

Kwon: After I won “Survivor” I did a lot of charity work. Using my fifteen minutes of fame, I worked with a lot of non-profits. One thing I was very active in and have been for most of my life… my best friend, my roommate died from leukemia because he couldn’t find a bone marrow donor. I’ve been active in raising awareness for the need for more minority bone marrow donors. And after I won, I spent a couple of years organizing bone marrow drives. After that I did some different stuff, I did some TV, ended up working on the (Barack) Obama campaign. I eventually went to work at the Federal Communications Commission. After a couple of years I left that to host a mini-series for PBS called “America Revealed.” It was a ton of fun. Then I went back into tech, I joined Facebook and worked there for five and a half years and have more recently joined Google.


Holmes: I have horrible news for you.

Kwon: Oh?

Holmes: Idols are different now.

Kwon: (Laughs) Yes! There are a lot more of them now.

Holmes: That is true, and they’re played differently. I hope you’ve done your research.

Kwon: I’ve been cramming my butt off trying to understand what’s happened over the last thirteen years. It’ll be interesting, I think the number of idols adds a layer of randomness, and also opportunities. They’re hard to take into consideration because you never know who has them.


Holmes: How does it feel to be back in the middle of all of this insanity?

Kwon: I’m excited to be back. The idea of having an all winners season was something I always told myself that I’d love to play. Coming into it, I have both excitement and apprehension. It has been thirteen years since I’ve played. Everyone on the male side, we haven’t seen the female side, are all people who’ve played multiple times. Or, if they’re a one-time winner like me, they’ve played much more recently. So, I feel like I’m coming in at a sufficient disadvantage. I haven’t played recently, I haven’t played the modern version of “Survivor.” And, the people who have played multiple times, they all know each other. So, you figure they have pre-existing relationships outside of the game, or they could easily reignite once they’re in the game itself. For someone like me, I think there’s a significant risk because I come in without these connections. I could be the first person booted off. That said, I think if I make it past that initial high-risk phase, I think I’ll have a chance to go pretty far. I come in as an unattached free agent. And, I think everyone is going to be looking for people they can trust and recruit into their own little private army. If I can find my way into an alliance that is led by one of the bigger players, I think I can ride that and have them as the main target until I can get further in the game and take over.


Holmes: We haven’t officially been told a theme. All we know is we have ten gentlemen under a tent.

Kwon: I do think it’s all winners. I’ve been trying to figure out how we’ll divide the tribes. It could just be a random pick. Could be the producers picking the sides to minimize any pre-game alliances. The fact that the men have been segregated from the women suggests that it could be men vs. women.

Holmes: And you’re assuming there are women here?

Kwon: I’m assuming there are women. It’d be hard to imagine an all-guys “Survivor.” It’d be weirdly gender imbalanced.

Holmes: That’s a very accurate observation.

Kwon: (Laughs) I can think of other themes. I’ve noticed in recent seasons they’ve been leaning toward the Outwit, Outplay, Outlast theme. You could imagine a set up of three tribes. One made up of strong strategists, another one known as challenge dominators or idol hunters, and another one with strong social games.

Holmes: If there are women here, any guesses as to who you’ll see?

Kwon: There have been a lot more male winners, so there’s a more limited pool to choose from. I assume most of them will be on; Sandra, Parvati, Kim, Tina (Wesson), you can go through the list, I think there have been fourteen female winners.



Holmes: When people think of Yul Kwon, what do you think they remember?

Kwon: I was the winner or the 13th season of “Survivor.” “Survivor: Cook Islands” otherwise known as “The Race Wars.”

Holmes: Yikes.

Kwon: (Laughs)

Holmes: That…uh…that was something.

Kwon: Yes it was.

Holmes: Good job, Jeff.

Kwon: I think people think of me as a strong strategic player. I leveraged the hidden immunity idol in a way that it hadn’t been leveraged before. And hopefully they think of me as someone who played a relatively clean game and stayed loyal to their alliance.

Holmes: With that in mind, how do you use that reputation to your advantage?

Kwon: It gives me a lot of options. I feel like I’m coming into this game similar to the way Sarah Lacina came into her second season. The first season she played a very clean game. In her case it didn’t work out. In her second season she was able to leverage that reputation to get a bunch of people to want to work with her. From there she was able to manipulate and deceive people in a way that nobody expected. I feel like coming into this game, people assume I’m going to play a clean game. And, I certainly could if it was to my advantage. But, I don’t have to. I think I have a lot of options. The first time I played there were a lot of self-imposed constraints. Because of the racial twist, I very much felt that I was in a position where I was representing my community. And for that reason, I felt like I was going to be under a microscope. So, I tried to be very diplomatic in terms of what I said and what I did. Again, I wouldn’t change anything. It went the way I wanted it to go. But this time, I don’t feel those constraints. I can play anyway I want.


Holmes: You’ve never played in an all-star season before. Some of these gentleman have. What do you think the difference is?

Kwon: Any experience in “Survivor” is helpful, so that’s a disadvantage. The reason why returning players have such a leg up on first-time players is, as soon as you arrive at the island, you’re sort of overwhelmed. You see it on TV, but the reality of; I don’t have food, I don’t have shelter, I’m surrounded by crazy people…it’s hard to absorb all at once. There’s a learning curve before you can lock in and focus on the game. If you’re a returning player, your head’s already in the game. All of that stuff doesn’t phase you. For me, it’s been thirteen years. I’m hopeful it’s like riding a bike. But, who knows, I may need some time. But people who have played more than once, especially people who have played in all-star seasons, they know the dynamics, they know one another, it’ll be a big advantage for them. But, the hard thing for them will be it’ll be tough to engender trust.

Holmes: We run an immunity challenge while we’re here. And I remember the first time in Gabon where we’re lined up to start and I’m thinking, “Look at all of these cameras.” And, “Holy crap, Jeff Probst just said my name.”

Kwon: (Laughs)

Holmes: Now I don’t even think about it. I’m just thinking, “Kill.”

Kwon: It’s a lot to process all at once.


Holmes: Are there any former players you went to for advice?

Kwon: Jonathan Penner is one of my closest friends. The other reason I’m playing this season is for him and his wife. We stayed very close. His wife has ALS, it’s just a devastating disease. So part of the reason I’m here is because I want to play for her. My hope is that if I do well and win the game, I’m hoping I can get CBS to commit to doing a matching thing where every dollar I donate will be matched by CBS. And if that happens, I will donate the whole thing. We need to find a cure for this.


Holmes: With returnee seasons there’s always talk of pre-game alliances. Have you been doing an of that?

Kwon: My disadvantage is I’m not connected to people. I’m not a part of the “Survivor” community. A lot of these people have played together, they hang out together, they play poker together.

Holmes: So, you don’t know anybody.

Kwon: I don’t know anybody. I’m hoping to flip that on its head and use that as an asset for me. I can say, “I’m unattached, I’m freely available.”

Holmes: You’re a free agent.

Kwon: “I’m a free agent. I’m not going to complicate your game by making you worry if I have an alliance with somebody else.”


Holmes: You’re in lockdown now, you’re not allowed to talk. But, people wink and nod and whatnot. Have you been doing any of that?

Kwon: No, because I don’t really know people. But, I have noticed some visual cues that some people might have familiarity with each other.

Holmes: Anyone in particular?

Kwon: I saw Jeremy go up to Wendell and knock off his cap and they both kind of giggled at it.

Holmes: That’s adorable!

Kwon: Yeah, but you don’t do that to someone you’ve met for the first time. You don’t know how that’s going to be interpreted. They’ve never played together, but I’m sure they have connected and have some kind of friendly relationship. Otherwise, that seems like a really dumb thing to do.

Holmes: Wendell, why did you vote out Jeremy?

Kwon: He knocked my hat off! What the hell?


Holmes: Alright, we’re going to play Align or Malign. I’d like you to separate the nine gentlemen you’re playing with into two categories. The four people you will work with and the five people you will avoid.

Kwon: OK…so I generally like to align with people I feel like I can trust and who I can anticipate what moves they’re going to make. So, here on the basis of the game they played, when I look at a Wendell or a Nick, they played relatively clean games. They got to the end by sticking with their core alliances for the most part. They were also generally transparent about sharing information. Jeremy also played a relatively clean game, but I worry about him because he’s such a threat, he’s such a likable person. Ethan is squeaky clean. He also has things outside of the game that he cares about. I don’t think he’s going to trash his reputation. Tony…wild card. He’s going to have a hard time. Nobody is going to trust him. His game is high risk, it’s very aggressive. It works when other people are unsuspecting. But, if everybody knows how you play, it’s going to be hard for him to build trust. Tyson and “Boston” Rob are really good friends. So, you’ve got to think they’re going to come as a package. I think I can work with Rob, he is a rational player. My pitch to him would be, “Hey Rob, I’ve been disconnected. I don’t know anybody. I need protection. If you can give me protection in your alliance, I can give you a loyal vote. We’re both loyal votes and I’m predictable. As long as you can articulate what our goal is and how we can get further to that goal, I’m not going to flip on you. I’m not going to rock the boat.” I think that would appeal to someone like Rob. What he wants to have is a core strong alliance that he can control and predict. I can say, “I don’t need to drive the bus. You can be the bus driver. All I need is for you to consult with me so I can understand the rationale and offer input.” I’d like to work with Rob, but if he’s solid with Tyson, there’s no place for me there. Ben is also hard to trust. He played a wild game. A lot of it was predicated on finding idols, similar to Tony. It just adds a tremendous amount of flux that it’s tough to predict. And he didn’t share a lot of information about his idols, so I don’t know if I could trust him or not. Adam is interesting, we have the Stanford connection. He also has a very compelling personal story and has been using his platform for things outside of himself. My main concern is; do the recent winners know each other? Do they all hang out? I know some of them do.

Holmes: Alright, align ‘em and malign ‘em.

Kwon: OK, Nick, Wendell, Jeremy, and Ethan are my aligns. And then Rob, Tony, Tyson, Adam, and Ben on the other side.

Holmes: Next step; of that four, who is your ride or die?

Kwon: I’d probably take Nick. Wendell and Jeremy have something going. Jeremy also has a strong connection with Rob because they play poker together. I could never be sure about his true allegiances. Ethan has also known a lot of players from before. Nick only won a few months ago, so the likelihood that he would have built strong relationships with other winners is fairly low. I think if I felt a really good signal that he wanted to go to the end, I’d be more likely to trust him more than these other guys.

Holmes: Of the five, who’s first out?

Kwon: The thing about Rob is…he’s such a big target. I would say Tony because his whole game is predicated on finding idols. And that’s hard to anticipate.


Holmes: You played in a different era. We seem to be in the era of “Let’s throw some weird advantages at the wall and see what sticks.” Have you been thinking about all of the new, odd possibilities?

Kwon: I think so. I can’t anticipate all of the scenarios. But, I think I have a good handle on how all of the advantages work. There have been a number of examples where people have used them well. But, at the end of the day, playing with idols is a high-risk strategy. I don’t want to have to rely on idols in order to win. I think the main reasons to get an idol is to prevent other people from having an idol. My strategy is to eliminate idols from being much of a factor at all. They just add a level of unpredictability that’s hard to anticipate.


Holmes: An alien lands, and you have to show them a clip that proves why “Survivor” is awesome. What do you show them?

Kwon: From my season when I flipped Jonathan Penner. I think that basically highlights that it’s a game where numbers matter. You have to have numbers. It’s a good showcasing of how a minority alliance gets into the majority by flipping someone using a tactical ploy using one of the key innovations…the hidden immunity idol.


Holmes: If Jeff decided to let you add a twist to the game, what would you request?

Kwon: Why don’t we divide the tribes by race? That was a great twist.

Holmes: So, you on one tribe by yourself.

Kwon: (Laughs) Exactly.

Holmes: My wife is not a “Survivor” fan, but she’s coming around. I was watching one of your episodes for research. And she said, “This twist is really weird. But it’s good that there’s so much more representation than usual.”

Kwon: Yeah.

Holmes: So, if there’s a positive to take from that.

Kwon: I’d agree. I would not have been on “Survivor.” I didn’t apply, I was recruited. Honestly, when I got the call for this season, I assumed it was all winners, otherwise I don’t think I would have been invited. They had to invite me, I’m the only Asian-American male winner. But, what’s a twist I would want…I liked the change in the tie-breaker rules in “Game Changers.” Now, if there’s a tie, there’s a revote. In “Game Changers” ties went right to rocks. The thing I liked about that is the way things work today, if you’re in the majority alliance and you outnumber them by a factor of two-to-one you can beat the minority alliance no matter what. Even if they have an idol. You can split the vote. That doesn’t make it so exciting. The thing I liked about that rule is that it made it hard to split the votes.


Holmes: I’m going to give you reasons someone could use to target you. I need you to argue against it.

Kwon: OK.

Holmes: Yul is nice, intelligent, likable. I don’t want to sit with him in the end.

Kwon: I am a very good final-three goat. Because I’m so nice and likable, I’m not going to be rewarded by the jury because I’m not going to be seen as playing the hardest game. I won’t seem like the person navigating the big moves and blindsides. I’d be a nice patsy.


Holmes: Yul isn’t going to be up to speed on all the new innovations.

Kwon: He doesn’t know what he’s doing. He only won because he had this overpowered immunity idol. He didn’t have to do anything.

Holmes: I don’t want to have to explain to this dude what an idol nullifier is.

Kwon: It’s funny, I’ve been reading and catching up on everything, including what people have said about me. The whole overpowered immunity idol thing, I think it’s not fair.

Holmes: OK, that was the idol that could be played after the votes were read.

Kwon: Yes, but it had a significant restraint that I don’t think people fully appreciated. Today’s version of the idol, you could play it after the vote and still give it away and protect someone with it. When I had it, the main constraint was you could only use it for yourself or give it somebody else before the Tribal Council happened. That’s a big limitation. So, the big fear I had going into it was when we had to flip Jonathan Penner. They had the majority and because I couldn’t use the idol to protect someone else because I’d have to give it someone before Tribal Council. I would have to correctly guess who they were going to target. And they could have picked someone randomly. They could’ve whittled us down until there were two left and then they could have split the vote. They had an obvious and credible way to defeat the idol. It wasn’t a guaranteed win. Nowadays you can choose at the Tribal Council who you’re going to protect. If the Vero tribe had their strategic (expletive deleted) together, they could have easily defeated my idol. And that’s why I played so hard to flip Jonathan at that time. And the reason nobody in my alliance flipped on me was because they all thought I’d take them to the final two. So, I think people didn’t appreciate my social game. I think if I played today they’d show more of my strategy. My strategy of not winning individual immunity. I didn’t want that target on my back. I wanted Ozzy (Lusth) to be the main threat. The fact that there were all sorts of things I did to get Jonathan to come to my side besides the idol. The reason people didn’t try to get rid of me because I had them all convinced I’d take them to the final two. Now, these are things I’m glad people didn’t see.  I can come in and say, “I don’t know, I found this idol and rode it to the end.” So, hopefully people will underestimate me.


Don’t miss the premiere of “Survivor: Winners at War” – Wednesday, February 12, 2020 at 8 pm ET.

Any Questions? Drop me a line on Twitter: @GordonHolmes