Recently, I had the exciting opportunity to participate in a TV show called Expedition: Robinson. It's essentially a Belgian/Dutch version of the American program Survivor, and I was selected as a contestant along with my brother Christophe and our fellow PokerStars Team Pro Fatima De Melo. We filmed the show over the summer and it's now airing on TV. Eight Belgians and eight Dutch are chosen for the show and just like in the American version, they drop you on an island in the middle of nowhere and you're expected to figure out a way to survive.
Chris and I didn't know what to expect because the setting and the rules change from year to year. We had no idea if we'd even be on the same team--sometimes they're predetermined and sometimes they're selected randomly. After arriving on the island (which was in Malaysia), we walked through a mangrove and were told we'd be competing in our first challenge. They split us into teams, and I was happy to discover I was on the same team as Chris and Fatima. We ended up winning the first challenge and our reward was being sent to camp on a beautiful, idyllic beach while the losing team had to stay in the mangrove on a small platform that was maybe five meters by five meters. At the beach, we found a box with a few supplies--some first aid stuff, an axe, and a small cylinder of rice. It was a relief to find at least some food, but you have no idea how long you'll have to get by on that little bit of rice.
When it came to strategy, our background as poker players served us very well. On the American Survivor, people approach the game strategically, but in this version, people are less strategic and would rather see a true "survivor" win. I think it is as much of a social and strategic game as much as it is a physical game, but a lot of people over here don't see it that way. Over the course of the program we had to make some really harsh decisions and ended up voting someone out who had become a friend of ours. Not only was this guy really good at all the survival stuff, like making fires and building a camp, but he was also super-strong and had collected five Immunity coins. He could use those coins to cancel out votes against him at our "tribal council." Chris, Fatima, and I knew the game was about to shift from a team competition to an individual one--I think they call it "The Merge" in American Survivor. And just like in poker, you want to keep weaker opponents around and get rid of the strong ones, preferably when they least expect it.
We followed this same rationale and thought about who we wanted to compete against in the finals. We didn't want to take such a strong player into the merge because we'd basically be handing him the win. He didn't feel like he was a target and that's what made it so harsh. He really didn't see it coming and it was a hard thing to do, but it's still a game and you're there to win. At the end of the day, you want to make the right decisions at all times so you can't regret the choices you have to make.
However, after taking this guy by surprise and voting him out, we got some notoriety. We were known as the "Evil Poker Trio" and it caused a lot of drama, especially from the die-hard fans that dislike the strategic/conspiracy element of the show and want to see true survivors win. But this is a game, and like in poker, we were very aware of our own strengths and weaknesses. We realized that we weren't the best camp builders, the best climbers, or the best swimmers, so we used our mental strength instead. We compared it to a winner-take-all tournament, where you had to get to the end by any means necessary and give yourself the best odds to get there. While the other players were concerned about keeping the fire and doing chores around the camp, we were constantly thinking about strategy.
While I think we excelled at the mental game, the actual survival part was really tough. You're starving every day. You can't sleep. You constantly feel weak and there are mosquitoes everywhere. It's amazingly warm, and there are no showers or bathrooms. It really is back to the basics and it's cool to see how you handle yourself in those situations--going from a life of luxury, traveling and living in hotels, to having to find food and having zero forms or communication. No phone, no laptop, no poker. It's just you, the people around you, and your environment. It's cool to see how you handle it. You sort of turn into an alter ego. The person you are there has completely different values and priorities because you're completely caught up in the game. It's all you think about--what to do, where to go, who to vote out, who to socialize with, who to align with, who to be afraid of, all that craziness. It's a pretty sick game, actually.
The show is still airing in Belgium and the Netherlands. I think eight episodes have been broadcast. People may not love us right now, but I think we really put our stamp on the show. And that's the way poker players are. They let rational thinking take over emotions. In poker and on the island, you have emotions, but you have to be able to keep them under control so you can make the right decisions.
Matthias De Meulder is a member of Team PokerStars Pro