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Garrett Adelstein on Survivor: Cagayan: “People Knew What They Were Doing”
Because both games involve deception and bluffing, there’s always been a ton of parallels between poker and CBS reality sensation Survivor.
So it's not a complete surprise another poker player (following Jean-Robert Bellande in Survivor: China and Jim Rice in Survivor: South Pacific) was cast in the upcoming Survivor: Cagayan.
The biggest difference, however, may be the intense amount of preparation the meticulous Garrett Adelstein, a legitimate online poker force, went through leading up to the contest.
When Adelstein found out he would be on the show he did what any good young online poker player does to move up stakes: he studied.
While not originally a fan of Survivor, when Adelstein made it to the final stages of casting he invested over 2,000 hours in preparation and watched all 27 seasons of the show. Twice.
It was somewhat similar to how Adelstein approached online poker when he was just starting out by consuming every piece of poker literature he could get his hands on.
PokerListings had the opportunity to chat with Adelstein today about appearing on one of the world’s most popular reality shows.
PokerListings: Can you talk about the process that got you on Survivor?
Garrett Adelstein: Unfortunately I have to admit I was not an applicant. Which kind of makes me sad, especially when I heard about how hard people work to get on the show. I was very fortunate to be approached at a bar by a couple people in casting.
I kind of suspected they were looking for a particular type of contestant. I let them know I was a poker player, which I didn’t think they expected, and I believe that ended up being a bit fortunate for me because I think poker players are a natural fit on Survivor.
PL: You were selected for the Brains tribe but it kind of seems like you could have fit in any of the tribes. If you could have chosen, which tribe would you have put yourself in.
Not the Brains tribe. [Laughs] I can’t get into that too much. The viewing public does know we were split into three tribes and you could probably make an assumption that the Brains tribe is probably going to be of the highest intellect. Being purely theoretical: that’s really problematic for my game.
I had some really specific ideas about what I was going to say I did for work. I wanted to use my outer appearance and be like “Hey I’m the young, athletic guy who doesn’t know about anything. You can be the smart person that guides me.”
I had to come up with something to explain why I was on that tribe. Without question that was one of many, many challenges. I think that’s sorta the name of the game of Survivor: facing adversity and adapting.
Either of the other tribes would have been a better situation for me, though.
PL: You’re a professional poker player. Can you talk a little about how you got into the game and some of your friends in the community?
My story is one you’ve heard 10 million times before. I fell in love with poker like many, many other people, when I was in high school back when ESPN blew up with the 2003 WSOP and Chris Moneymaker.
Interestingly enough, most of my close friends aren’t really poker players. I think sometimes the poker world can lose a bit of touch with reality. My real-life friends keep me grounded.
Probably the two closest friends I have in poker are Phil Galfond and Jason Senti.
PL: You spent a lot of time watching the old seasons of Survivor. While you were doing your preparation, what sorts of conclusions did you come to about what was the best way to win or the things you just cannot do?
There are just so many things you cannot do. The biggest thing – and the one I worked on the most – was keeping your emotions in check.
You need to always play the social game. I watched so many seasons where otherwise competent players would make these terrible social blunders and when it came time for the final tribal council people were just unwilling to give them a million dollars.
You have to play the social game at all times. That means treating people with kindness and respect and being genuinely empathetic towards whatever is going on in their lives.
It also means just playing the game. Don’t sit and sleep on bamboo all day when you could be listening to someone else’s problems. You have a lot of free time. It’s important to utilize it.
PL: It generated a lot of buzz in the poker world when Jean-Robert Bellande appeared on Survivor: China. How would you rank Bellande as first a poker player, and second, as a Survivor contestant?
I’ve actually never played against Jean-Robert, which is somewhat surprising. I don’t think I’ve ever met him. I’ve heard he’s a talented poker player and everything he does in the media is kind of a shtick. He’s actually quite good.
From a Survivor perspective I guess I wasn’t the biggest fan of his game. He did a lot of things that were pretty close to direct contradiction to what I was trying to do out there.
He was a bit combative. He had this plan of almost being purposely disliked, which I didn’t find to be a good strategy.
That said, aside from the social game, I’m sure he had a decent feel for the nuances of the game. It’s tough. Everyone is going to get edited a certain way. We really don’t know. He didn’t even get that much screen time.
I can’t say I’d put him up there as one of my biggest influences, though.
PL: Which Survivor contestant do you think was the greatest and which season is your favorite?
I’m going to go with Kim Spradlin, in part because I’m absolutely in love with her, but in all seriousness I do think she played the best game I’ve ever seen.
She dominated her season in a way we’ve never seen before as opposed to Boston Rob in season 22 having already competed three times. Rob is a fantastic Survivor player too.
The way Kim dominated socially it opened up my eyes. Everybody loved Kim. Every single person on that season would do anything and everything to ensure that she won. That might be a testament to how poor the other players were on her season but I think Kim deserves some credit for that.
Survivor has insane amounts of variance. You can’t even put it into words. Poker players understand that poker has way more variance than they would like at times but it’s not even close to Survivor. It would be some extreme multiple.
The beauty of Kim’s game was that she set up this blueprint where there were so many different ways for her to win. So many things could have gone against her that season and she still would have found a way to win.
There are a few others I have a lot of respect for including Yul Kwon in Survivor: Cook Islands and Brian Heidik in Suvivor: Thailand.
My favorite seasons were 16 and 20. They were special seasons. I thought Tocantins was a really well done season. Philippines, where they had three tribes, was also great.
Watching and re-watching Philippines was really important for me. Going from two to three tribes is almost like going from Limit to No-Limit Hold’em. The game is much different.
PL: Obviously poker is a lot harder than it was in the early 2000s. Do you think Survivor has evolved in a similar way and current contestants play the game at a higher level?
That’s a great question. Yes, it certainly has. I think people are going to love this season. I really do. There are several reasons but #1 is that people just know what they are doing. You have a lot of savvy Survivor players.
This is what’s fascinating to me: you watch a lot of players in the 17-23 seasons of the show and people are still TERRIBLE at Survivor. It’s not as if they don’t have a wide array of references to go off.
They were just casting people who didn’t care. You have to give a lot of credit to the casting department in this season for making sure they cast a group of people who know Survivor, know how to play and love the game.
That increase of skill level is going to make for a much better season. It’s the opposite of poker where facing much better players makes for a worse experience when you are sitting at the table.
PL: Do you think there are any well-known poker players who would be good Survivor contestants?
Oh yeah. Here’s the thing about it. I think to qualify the person would have to be a good poker player and smart. That creates a pretty long list. Moving on, I think you just want someone who would have a really great social game. Someone who could connect to all sorts of people.
The first answer that comes to me, and this is going to sound so typical, is Daniel Negreanu. He can relate to everyone, he’s the funnest guy ever at the table. I think he would do really well.
But as long as Survivor keeps filming over the summer and Daniel Negreanu keeps winning 10 bracelets a year that might be impossible.
PL: What has the response been like from the poker community after finding out you were going to be on the show?
I think the response from the poker media, and social media in general, has been fun but it’s not real. I get all these Twitter messages, Facebook friend requests, 2+2 threads and it’s great. It’s all fun but I don’t take it too seriously. It’s the virtual world.
It’s not the biggest thing in my world, I just have a few more things to come home to. The coolest thing about it is getting to reconnect with people. It definitely puts a smile on my face.
PL: Will we see you a bit more on the live tournament circuit now or are you going to pretty much stick to cash games?
I’m going to play the Main Event. I play the Main Event every year, minus last year, and that year where they actually hit the cap and like 500 people didn’t get to play.
I feel like what often happens is that every year I’ll be like “Oh I hate tournaments more than anything and I’m not going” then I’ll have like five friends win six-figure scores and I’ll get pissed off about it.
So I’ll make my way out there, play two tournaments, and then realize how much I hate it again. Then I’ll go directly home until the Main Event.
I suspect something very similar will happen this year.
Survivor: Cagayan debuts Feb. 26, 2014 on CBS.