Post Mortems

Survivor's Tony Vlachos on His Hardest Winners at War Moment: 'I Was Crushed, It Was Just Raw Emotion'

Survivor Season 40 Finale Tony Vlachos

Warning: This post contains spoilers from Wednesday’s Survivor: Winners at War finale. 

The Queen was crowned long ago, but now, Survivor has found its King.

With the help of a fellow cop and one slick spy nest, New Jersey native Tony Vlachos reigned supreme on Survivor: Winners at War, earning the show’s largest prize ever and the bragging rights of beating the best. Vlachos’ aggressive strategy, paired with his impressive challenge-winning streak, helped secure 12 of 16 jury votes, which were more than enough to print his name on the $2 million check. All of that and more —without a single vote cast against him all game. (Go here for a full recap of the finale.)

Here, Vlachos talks to TVLine about his emotional fire-making triumph, the fine art of zigzagging and which “powerhouse” player he needed to get gone.

TVLINE | First of all, congratulations! How does it feel to be the King of Survivor?
Thank you so much, man. [Laughs] I don’t know, I’m going to wait until that check comes in my bank account, ’cause Jeff said he’s sending out a pigeon or something, I don’t know what’s going on!

TVLINE | You waited a long time for the votes to be read. Did you think you won when you left Fiji last year?
I did have a good feeling, but it wasn’t 100 percent. Especially when I’m watching these players on Twitter or social media and I’m like, “Oh my god, did this person vote for this person, because they’re laughing with them?” It was like mind games the whole time. That’s why I try to stay away from the social media stuff, because when I see stuff like that I get nervous! I was like, “I can’t do this to myself. It’s too long to keep doing this for a whole year!”

TVLINE | In Game Changers, you were voted out second. What was an important lesson you learned from that season that helped you in this game?
They don’t tell you what the theme of the season is before you go on. So when I went [on Game Changers] and saw there were only two other winners besides myself, Sandra and J.T., I was deflated. I was demoralized. I was like, “There’s no way these people are going to let us get further than Day 4 or 5.” So at that point I was like, “Y’know, let me just go out there and be a goofball because I know I don’t stand a chance.” That’s why I went in there just acting crazy and silly.

This time around, when I see I’m playing with all winners, it’s a much higher caliber of play. I knew I could hide behind people. All I had to do was be quiet, observe and listen. As hard as it was for me, I knew I had to do that. I waited for the right time and the right opportunities to make my moves.

TVLINE | Did you have any expectation for how well you’d do this season? You must’ve felt like a big target going in, right?
Boston Rob, Parvati, Sandra, Kim and even Sarah… I knew I had buffers in front of me. I was like, “You know what? There’s a lot more dangerous people right now. If anything starts coming my way, I can easily deflect it onto the rest of these people who have huge targets.” That’s when I came up with the thing about the lions and the hyenas. I went into that game overestimating everybody. I don’t care if they lost 12 out of 13 times, I’m going to overestimate, so I can play it from the bottom, you know? That was the mentality I had throughout the whole entire game.

TVLINE | How did Natalie’s return from the Edge affect your game, and was there anyone else you hoped would win that Challenge?
Honestly, when we went to watch the battle back, I didn’t have anything in my mind. I wasn’t rooting for anybody, I wasn’t rooting against anyone. I just handled it as it happened. That’s how I did a lot of things there. I went into it situationally, and then addressed it, instead of coming up with all of these ideas in my head for no reason. Natalie was halfway through the challenge without even playing it. All of us were talking about it. How does that make sense that the first person voted out — and nothing against Natalie, just the twist itself we were upset with — was halfway through the challenge where someone like Nick, Jeremy, Kim and Sophie, who got voted out later in the game, it was much harder for them? If I had known all the tokens I gave up for my extortion were going to help Natalie have an idol to come back with, I would’ve never done it! But we didn’t know how the tokens worked on the other side.

TVLINE | Was there anyone you didn’t want to go to the final three with?
I guess the people I was gunning for are the people I didn’t want to go to the end with. But I wasn’t thinking like, “Oh, I can beat this person, I can’t beat this person.” When I go into the game, I don’t go in with the mindset, “I have to build a resume to get to the end.” I do whatever I feel necessary for me to move forward. If my game is better than the next person, then give me the win. I just play the best that I can, and that’s it. At the end of the day, my game’s got to speak for itself.

TVLINE | Emotions were running high after you beat Sarah in the fire-making challenge. Can you talk me through what you were feeling in that moment?
Oh my goodness, Sarah and I, for six years now, always said, “Imagine Cops R Us sitting at the end!” When Natalie said it was going to be us making fire, I was crushed. Obviously, I want to win the game, so I knew I had to win. But it was so hard for me. You saw it. It was just raw emotion. Watching it back last night, I was just bawling. That was Day 39 so your emotions… you’re hungry, you’re sleep deprived. Everything is so raw and amplified. It really, really hurt me.

TVLINE | Would you ever have voted Sarah out if you had to?
That was an absolute no for me. There’s no chance I would’ve done it. If I could’ve gone all the way to the end with her, I would’ve. The audience only watched maybe a handful of instances where me and her were fighting, and I still wouldn’t consider voting her out. But we were fighting a lot. I’d be like, “Yo, what do you mean, open your eyes!” and she would be like, “You need to slow down, what are you doing? You don’t need to bring attention to me!” I’m like, “I’m not bringing attention to you, if anything, they’re looking at me!” It was great.

TVLINE | Were you surprised that Sarah voted Ben out? Was there any fallout from that vote that we didn’t see on TV?

It was a joke fallout. When I blindsided Sarah with the Sophie vote, she came back and veins were popping out of her head. She was yelling at me, spit was flying out of her mouth, it was crazy. She was so upset with me. This time, it was the first time in my Survivor career that I did not know where the votes were going. I was so stunned by that. So as we were going back to the camp, Sarah sat down and gingerly said, “Hey Tony, do you want to talk?” and I said, “What? Talk? Don’t you ever talk to me ever again! I don’t have nothing to say to none of you ladies! As a matter of fact you can all kiss my… cheek because we’re all final four, baby!” and we started dancing around. Michele’s eyes were wide open because she thought I was serious. Sarah was about to cry because she didn’t know what was going on. I wish they would’ve shown that.

TVLINE | Besides cutting Sarah’s ties with her, was there any other reason why Sophie had to go?
There were a lot of reasons. Sophie was a powerhouse. It all started at tribal when she pulled our group of five together and was telling us what to do. Then, when we get back to camp, she spilled the beans and told Michele, Kim and Jeremy that we were really gunning for Jeremy, and I didn’t want that, because I like options in the game. I like to make alliances all throughout with different people in case I want to zig and zag. If you have only one alliance, you’re only gonna zig; if you have two alliances, you’re gonna zag; if you have three alliances, you’re gonna zig, zag and zig, you know what I mean? Kim knew I was playing double agent because Sophie told her. And Sophie said, “It doesn’t matter, it’s us five strong. They know they’re on the bottom. We’re just going to get Jeremy out next.” And I was like, “No way, that’s not how it’s going to work.”

TVLINE | Was there one move in your game that you thought was your biggest play?
It was 100 percent the Sophie blindside, without a doubt. That blindside came through like a sucker punch when they put their guards down. Everybody was thrown off balance. It’s like being in a boxing ring and you get that one big body blow. You never recover from that, and the punches continue to come. Boom, boom. boom. From that point on, winning immunity challenges, I just became more empowered day by day.

There was much more to Sophie. She was killing the reward challenges! She’s a beast, and her mind is sharp. She’s a very great player.

TVLINE | You’ve now guaranteed your spot in the Survivor Hall of Fame! If Jeff Probst calls again, are you down to go back?
Of course! I would love to play Survivor: Seniors Edition. I think I’ll have a little more energy than the other older folks.

TVLINE | You’d run circles around them.
I would hope so!