Tony Vlachos Survivor Winner
Credit: Image: CBS

“It was a jaw-dropping moment and I think all of America was screaming at the TV.”

If Survivor had a Mount Rushmore depicting its biggest winners of all time, these are the faces you would see cemented in reality TV history: Sandra Diaz-Twine, Boston Rob Mariano, and Parvati Shallow. Now we can add Tony Vlachos to that top-tier honor after he was crowned champion of Survivor: Winners At War, the show’s epic 40th season. We had the opportunity to chat with Vlachos after his $2 million victory, and he didn’t hold anything back. He told us how he plans to spend the money, explained why the Edge of Extinction twist isn’t fair and revealed if he would ever consider playing the game again. Plus, he offered his thoughts on one player he thinks would have “destroyed” him at the final vote had she made it that far.survivor Tony starts fire $2 million is the single biggest payout in reality TV history. That’s a lot of money. What are you planning to spend it on?

Tony Vlachos: That is a lot of money. The plans are to get me out of the hole that the first $1 million put me in. When I first won my season I invested in properties. I put down payments on a lot of properties thinking I was some big mortgage man, and now with this money, I’m going to get out of that hole by paying off those mortgages. This finale was very different due to coronavirus concerns as Jeff Probst read the final votes live from his garage instead of with a studio audience. What was that moment like as your family sat by your side?

Tony Vlachos: Oh my God. Honestly, I wouldn’t trade that moment for the world. I know how grand the finales are with the live reunion show, the audience, the fans, everybody cheering and partying, the celebration. Being in the comfort of my own home, sitting down on the sofa with my wife, with my kids, watching Jeff in his garage doing the votes for $2 million, that’s definitely one for the books. What happened at your house the moment the show ended having realized you had just won $2 million?

Tony Vlachos: I gave my family a kiss and I went upstairs and started doing interviews [laughs.] There you go. That’s how my night ended. You found yourself sitting at the final Tribal Council against Natalie, who benefited from the Edge of Extinction twist in which she was able to return at the end of the game despite being voted out first. There are some Survivor purists who despise the Edge of Extinction because they don’t like the idea that somebody voted out of the game so early can come back and win it all. What’s your take on Edge of Extinction having played a season with the twist involved?

Tony Vlachos: I’m one of those people that say that. I’m totally against it. I think it’s bogus, especially to let somebody come into the game with five days left and with an Idol in your pocket. It’s just bonkers to me. If you want to do that and you want to let people come back in from the Edge, don’t give them the power to have an Idol and protection. You have a second chance to come in, you’re lucky enough to have that chance. It’s your job to create a hole in the alliance or find a hole in the alliance and make yourself fit in, not come in with an Idol. To me, I hate it. It was garbage. Look at Kim, Sophie, Nick and Jeremy they got voted out toward the end of the game and they didn’t have a chance in that challenge to come back. When Natalie was voted out first and she was already halfway through the challenge and everybody else was struggling, to me that’s just bananas to have watched that. That hurt so much. I’m pretty sure Wendell would’ve won that if Natalie didn’t have all those advantages. Did it surprise you that Natalie got a handful of votes from jury members like Parvati, Ethan, Jeremy and Tyson?

Tony Vlachos: The Parvati one definitely surprised me. I remember Parvati was my biggest fan in Cagayan. She said, “Tony killed the game. I like how he dominated. His game was perfect. I loved it.” I thought she respected gameplay. To see her not vote for me, that was kind of strange to me. I was like, how could you do that? Just because you saw Natalie running up and down a mountain on the Edge, you’re going to give her your vote for that? I was a little upset. Remember, Natalie was only vulnerable once in the game without protection, and that was the day she got voted off. All the other days she had protection. Ethan told me, “Tony, I’m sorry I didn’t even get to meet you. I didn’t even get to say hello to you. It’s hard for me to vote for you.” I said, “It’s no fault of my own. It’s the game. That’s what you were dealt. If you feel that way, you feel that way.” Jeremy, I definitely understand that he voted for Natalie because they’re like family. I definitely get it. I know myself, I would’ve voted for Sarah if she made it to the end whether she played a good game or not. My vote would go to Sarah just because of my loyalty to her. I definitely see where Jeremy came from. I’m surprised with Tyson, also. I didn’t expect that. You’re now the second person to win Survivor twice. Will you be calling yourself the “King” like two-time winner Sandra Diaz-Twine calls herself “Queen?”

Tony Vlachos: Absolutely not [laughs.] That’s not my character.

Evolution of how he played Walk us through the evolution of how you played through your three seasons.

Tony Vlachos: The first time I played, we’re playing on a level playing field. Nobody knows each other. Everybody is a stranger, so nobody knew what I was about. Nobody knew if I was a liar or not. I could pretty much do or say anything I wanted at that point. After people knew how I played and watched how I played, there was no way I could do that again. The second time was a disaster for me. The third time going in, I knew that I was playing with a bunch of winners. These winners would not let me get over on them. These winners did everything in their power to win their seasons. They influenced votes. They blindsided people. They lied to people. They betrayed people. They know what it’s like to manipulate. There was no way that I would be able to do that with them. My strategy going into the game was to stay under the radar, be patient, it was to just watch, observe and listen instead of opening my mouth and talking and trying to direct votes and do things in the beginning. I wanted to build the bonds socially that later on I could use them to make the moves that I needed to make, which worked out perfectly for me. My timing was perfect. That definitely led to my success. Your bond with fellow police officer Sarah Lacina has become so strong since you first played with her back in Survivor: Cagayan. That friendship helped get you deep into this season, so explain how that bond has changed since you first met all those years ago.

Tony Vlachos: Six years ago back in Cagayan when we first met, I didn’t care for Sarah. I didn’t know who she was. She was just an opponent to me. I wanted to beat her. I wanted to beat everybody to win. So when we formed the Cops-R-Us alliance toward the end of the game it became a little real for me because I did want to work with her. I just couldn’t do it. The circumstances didn’t allow for that. After the game, we saw each other at the reunion. We talked on the phone once, twice or three times a year and we always said, “You know how beautiful that would’ve been if we would have sat there as Cops-R-Us at the end? Yeah, it would’ve been nice. If we ever play again let’s just try to make it to the end. If we have to take each other out later on in the game, so be it, but in the beginning of the game let’s just try to stay true to each other.” We did play again in Game Changers for the second time. Unfortunately for me, I didn’t get the opportunity to meet Sarah and play on that season, but she went on and won the show. Then, the third time we got to start off on the same team. We knew that the theme of the season was get rid of the power couples, break them up. Break up Jeremy and Natalie. Break up Rob and Amber. You saw it all the time. Me and Sarah said to each other, “We cannot even look at each other. Don’t look at me. Don’t talk to me. I won’t look at you. I won’t talk to you. If they catch wind that you and I are working together, we’re gone.” We did a great job with that because nobody knew that we were working so closely together until later on in the game when it was too late.survivor games

Final three In the scenario you end up in the final three with Sarah at your side, do you think you have a tougher time winning against her?

Tony Vlachos: 100 percent. Sarah is a great player. Obviously, she’s learned from the past. She said she learned from me in Cagayan. We all seen what Sarah’s capable of with Game Changers. She’s a very good player. She’s a great social player. Sarah can talk to you about sports, about fighting, about food, about traveling, she can talk to you about anything. When you have that kind of skill where you can talk about anything, that is great social play and great with bonds. She would’ve went there with me and she would’ve probably destroyed me. Not only is she a good social player, but she’s a good strategic player. Knowing that she would have potentially beaten you for the $2 million, would you still have wanted to go to the end with her?

Tony Vlachos: I didn’t even think about it in the game. In the game, I was just doing my best. I was making the power moves that I could do. I was trying to influence votes as much as I could. I was winning Immunity challenges. I found Idols. I overcame a disadvantage. I built my own social game also, so at that point I wasn’t thinking that she was going to beat me. I was just thinking that I was playing the best that I can play. If it’s good enough, I’m going to win. If it’s not good enough, I’m going to lose. It’s good to have that feeling where you don’t have to specifically target a person that you want to go to the end with. It’s great to know that I don’t care who I go to the end with as long as I can play the best game I know I can play, it’s going to speak for itself. Although you were almost always on the same page, it seemed Sarah surprised you when she decided to flip the vote against Ben at the final five after he surprisingly told her it was OK to take him out.

Tony Vlachos: So what happened was when I blindsided her with the Sophie vote she was distraught, she was angry. She was like, “You backstabbed me. You went behind my back and I thought I could trust you. I should’ve never trusted you.” She was very angry. When it came down to the Ben vote, she left me out of that vote. I had no idea. Let me tell you, that is the first time in my entire Survivor career that I was blindsided. That is the first time that I had no idea where the vote was going. Every single vote I always was either in charge of or I knew where it was going, except for that Ben one. That was new to me. I was like, “Oh my God. Is that how a blindside works where you’re totally unaware of what’s going to happen?” It was such a strange feeling not to know that was going to happen like that. When we went back to camp that night, Sarah was like, “Tony, can I talk to you?” I started screaming, “No! I don’t want to talk to you. I don’t want to talk to none of you ladies. You ladies can kiss my cheek [changes to lighthearted tone] because we’re in the final four, baby!” That’s how it went down. It was so funny. She was so scared. She thought I was going to start cursing and screaming, but it was great. I had no idea she was going to do that with the Ben vote. Watching it back, to see Ben do that, that’s an amazing human being to do that. I know that I could not do that. I could not do what Ben did. After the game was over he explained to us, he was like, “Tony, I watched people die in my arms. … I didn’t want to see Sarah go through this. It was very painful for her and I knew she was fighting within herself to blindside me, so I just gave her the permission.” Oh my God, Ben. That’s a great human being. He said, “I don’t care about money. I value the friendship that I had with Sarah more than money.” Good for you, man. What a great three Survivor

Jaw-dropping moment It was a jaw-dropping moment and I think all of America was screaming at the TV when Ben told Sarah to vote him out — especially since he was so close to the end.

Tony Vlachos: When you see the reality of it of how he was feeling and what he saw on the island, the audience will never see that. You’ll never feel what the players feel in the game. Me beating Sarah at fire, you’re watching the game but you don’t know what the real feelings were behind that. I was devastated. I was crushed with that. The same thing with Ben. The feelings that he had were real. Those were real emotions. He watched Sarah sit there and cry, fighting with herself to vote him out. That was her move. She wanted to vote Ben out. Ben knew he was going to get voted out and he told her it’s OK. “If you want to vote me out, vote me out. I don’t want to see you like this. I don’t want to see you hurt like this.” That is so touching. It’s just a game. People can say he’s a quitter. No. He doesn’t care. It’s a game. He values Sarah’s emotions and her feelings more than he valued the game at that point. Now that you’ve played three times and won twice, would you go back and play again or are you retired?

Tony Vlachos: I would come back for Survivor: Seniors Edition [laughs.]

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