For three years in a row, the producers of the Benelux version of Survivor approached me about being a contestant on the show. I turned them down the first two times because I had just started playing poker and really wanted to go to the World Series, but when they asked a third time, I thought if I said no again they'd never ask me back! It was a struggle for me to say yes because I'm kind of a control freak and thought I would be really worried about what I was missing back home. As it turned out, though, making the decision to go was actually more difficult than being there.
Not that being there was easy. Nothing about Survivor is easy. I do feel like I handled the starvation and the insect bites and sleeping in the sand pretty well. I also had two instant allies on my team--fellow PokerStars pros Matthias and Christophe De Meulder. Since I was in there with Matti and Chris, we ended up playing a really strategic game, but people in Holland aren't really used to that. The Benelux Survivor is much more easy-going than the U.S. version. They're used to seeing people fishing and building a hut, maybe having a little chat with each other and all of a sudden someone gets voted off. And no one really knows why or what the strategy is behind it. The three of us approached the game tactically and at one point, we made the decision to vote out a guy on our team that was really nice and well liked. We had won five group challenges in a row and this guy had proven himself to be a strong player. We knew it was the right move to vote him out as soon as we could, but people were really shocked by our decision--both the players on the island as well as the viewing audience. They just couldn't get over what we did.
To me, it was so strange that people were unable to separate their personal feelings from playing a strategically optimal game. As poker players, we're conditioned to understand that what happens at the table has nothing to do with friendship. When I play in a tournament and have friends at my table, we never soft-play each other. Matthias is a good friend of mine, but I still want to get my money in with aces against his kings every time. In Dutch society, however, people perceive that as harsh or mean. On the island, we thought it would be even meaner to vote someone off just because we thought he was a nasty person. When we had to vote our friend off, we told him it was nothing personal, we just didn't want to climb ropes against him in the finals if we ever got there.
That episode really sparked a discussion in Holland about the best way to play Survivor. My friend Lex Veldhuis is a huge fan of the American version and sounded off on Twitter the other day about how he can't understand people who don't think tactics should be used on Survivor. I don't get it either. You're playing a game to win the game--you're not on an island to chill out and make friends! Obviously you do make friends while you are there and I'm still in contact with some people I met on the island, but you can't ever take a vote personally. It was just easier for the three of us to get around that than it was for the others. Eventually, the other players grew into using strategy--they had just never thought about the game that way until we came around.
Playing Survivor taught me a lot about myself. I realized that I have the strength to handle a lot of adversity without growing too sad or frustrated. I always want to feel needed and keep my bonds with friends and family really tight. That can be suffocating sometimes on both sides. While I was out there, I learned to let go and not always want to be needed to avoid feeling alone. It also made a big impact on my life when I got back home. Before, if I was alone my instinct was always to call a friend and feel like someone wanted to talk to me. Now I'm able to do my own thing and actually enjoy being by myself. It's just strange to think I had to be left on an island to survive in order to learn how.