'Survivor David vs Goliath' Winner Walks Through the Path to Victory

The season 37 champion surveys the 39-day struggle to win the Sole Survivor title.
Robert Voets/CBS

How did Nick Wilson win Survivor: David vs. Goliath, the 37th season of the historic reality franchise? Let's start with the high praise from executive producer and host Jeff Probst: "When it comes to Survivor, Nick's a killer. He is relentless, and he is a shape-shifter." A mythical description, to be sure, but does it tell the full story? Certainly not. 

For another perspective, let's review the numbers: Nick scored one huge blindside against John Hennigan, three crucial immunity challenge wins at the end of the line and seven winning votes from the David vs. Goliath jury — even if longtime ally Christian Hubicki cast a surprising vote for runner-up Mike White, saying: "I think you played a transformative game. I have enormous respect for your strategic play. That is the critical deciding factor. I hope that this changes how the game is played." Christian's high praise for Mike aside, Nick still claimed the lion's share of the jury, easily beating Mike and Angelina Keeley alike.

But if Probst's assessment doesn't do the trick on its own, do those numbers represent the entire story of Nick's victory? Certainly not. Hailing from Kentucky and harboring lifelong fantasies of competing on Survivor, Nick's win is literally a dream come true for the public defender — not to mention the fulfillment of a true underdog story arc, as Nick was earmarked to leave David vs. Goliath first, if not for blue-collar Pat Cusack's medical evacuation at the start of the season.

A wise man once said: "In this world, son, you've got to make your own luck." Indeed, rolling with luck and seizing destiny is an underrated idea in the game of Survivor. How did Nick harness those ideas, and combine them with a winning strategy? He answers those questions and more in the interview with The Hollywood Reporter ahead, looking back on the story of an underdog who became a king.

How did you win? Pin your victory on a moment. Is there one?

I think it's when I voted out Christian. It's so tough to pick one winning moment over a 39-day game. I feel like I played a great game and I had a lot of great moves, but I had the choice to vote out Christian or vote out Alison [at the final seven]. Whoever's name I wrote down, they were going home. I feel the Goliaths wanted Christian gone for so long, and Mike was really pushing to get him out, that it wasn't seen as my move. I think the jury looked at it as someone else's move. But for me, it was important to do that at that time. With the fire-making challenge, the game has gotten quicker, sooner. You have to make moves faster than people had to in the past. At the final seven, there are only three chances left to vote someone out. With Christian, he really was the threat they showed him as. I was so close with him for so long. I felt like I worked really hard to keep him in the game for such a long time. We used advantages on him, idols on him, everything we could. Then the [fake idol trickery] happened, and it got Davie and Christian coming after me. Once I told them I didn't really have two idols, I felt like Davie trusted me one hundred percent, but Christian didn't. He was still lying to me that day. I felt like I could play with anybody, even a threat, if it was someone I could trust. But I felt like a threat I couldn't trust? It would have been a huge mistake to leave someone like that in the game.

In the end, Christian voted for Mike to win. Are you surprised by that?

I was surprised. I just learned about it last night. (Laughs.) I couldn't really hear what he said while I was watching. Maybe they showed his vote in confessional?

They did. Here's what he said: "I think you played a transformative game. I have enormous respect for your strategic play. That is the critical deciding factor. I hope this changes how the game is played." Does that clarify Christian's vote for Mike, in your mind?

I mean, I agree! Mike played a great game. I don't disagree with that at all. I think Christian and Gabby both had a hard time deciding who to vote for. I don't blame him at all for voting for Mike. But we were so close, Christian and I. We were in an alliance. But I voted him out. He has every right to vote for me or Mike, whichever one he feels played the best game. I know it was hard for him. Mike did play a great game. Watching us out there, maybe it was hard for him to see the game that I was playing, because it's so fickle … you do have to hide your threat level so much, that for me and Mike, who were so good at keeping our targets off and not showing that we were too threatening, that maybe for a lot of the game, people didn't see how much of a threat we were. But Christian was working with me, so he knew the moves I was making …

But it's hard to be mad when you received seven votes to win and you're a million dollars richer today.

Yeah, exactly. (Laughs.) I'm not mad at all. I respect Mike's game so much. I don't feel disrespected. I'm not mad at all. But it was surprising! 

If Christian and Gabby never turned on Carl, and the Davids stay strong, is your path to the end easier or harder than how things played out? In other words, if the Davids don't collapse, do you still win the game?

Hm. (Pauses, then laughs.) I think, yeah, maybe I still win! I think I played a good game and I could have won against anybody. But if the Davids stick together until the final five, which may or may not have happened … I could be in the end with Davie and Carl. But nowadays, after seeing Ben win, it's so hard to pick who you're in the final three with. You really never know. Christian could have made it to the end with me, and I'm sure I would have lost to him. But even if I'm sitting at the end with Davie and Carl, Davie could easily beat me. Everybody loved Davie, too. It was one of those situations where if it happened, and all the Davids survived? May the best man or woman win. We would have left it all on the line. I think it would have been easier to get there, but it was a benefit to me to be the only David at the final three. Maybe it could have been easier to get there, but not so easy to win.

Is it a coincidence that it was the three Survivors from Jabeni sitting there at the final three, or was it by design?

I don't think it's a coincidence. We were working together. Even when you have the "David Five," or the "Goliath Seven," or whatever it was … I think everyone still had their backup plans. Not even necessarily backup plans. But it was season 37. Everybody's working with everybody. Even if the Goliaths at the merge stuck together, Mike and Angelina probably would have kept me, Davie and Carl around. Even if we didn't do the John and Dan blindsides, there's still a good chance the Goliaths turn on each other, and it's me and Angelina and Mike deep in the game. It's the same thing if the Davids stuck together for another vote or two [instead of turning on Carl], where I still think Mike and Angelina were the two nobody was looking to target. Eventually, the Davids would turn on each other. I think no matter what, the Jabeni three happened to be in a good spot. We had relationships with everybody. Mike played a great game. I had relationships with everyone on the merge tribe. After a few rounds, Angelina fell off people's radars and her name wasn't going around anymore. So, I think it was destiny. It's funny, too. Elizabeth told us that at Ponderosa, she would ask the local Fijians what different words meant: "What does Vuku mean? What does Tiva mean?" And then she asked them, "What does Jabeni mean?" And they said, "Jabeni is a great word. It means 'champion.'" (Laughs.) Isn't that unbelievable?

You used the word "destiny," and I certainly buy into there being a fated quality to how Survivor turns out. There's also a lot of luck involved. I know you take issue with the idea that you may have gone home first if not for Pat's evacuation, but let's trust the people with the tapes and assume it's true. How do you break down success on Survivor from the standpoint of intentional strategy, luck and a touch of destiny?

Here's what I think: if you make a mistake, or if something goes wrong for you on Survivor, and you don't get voted out? It's really just one of the best things that can happen. (Laughs.) Maybe you're the one who is supposed to be voted out. Maybe someone gets hurt. Maybe you're blindsided, but it's not your name written down. That's a huge opportunity to play harder and have more fun. Before the accident with Pat happened, I knew there was a good chance it could have been me [going home first]. So I saw it as an opportunity to have as much fun as possible and play as hard as possible, and to know for a fact that if I ever ended up leaving the game, it wouldn't be because I didn't play hard. I wanted to make sure I did everything I could possibly want to do on Survivor. Maybe it's luck. Maybe it's fate. Maybe it's the Survivor Gods. But I do think that attitude gets rewarded more often than not: playing hard, even if and after you mess up.

You were a huge fan of Survivor before you went on Survivor, reading strategy blogs and listening to podcasts. Was that helpful or harmful for your game, to have ingested all that information ahead of time?

It was definitely helpful for me. Following seasons so closely, and even following other shows … I had gone through so many different scenarios in the past, just while watching the show. Each week on The Wiggle Room, you talk about what would have happened if this player went this way or if this player went that way. Playing all the scenarios out makes the actual gameplay feel super natural to me, where I didn't have to rack my brain too hard. Ideas came to me naturally. Splitting the minority vote against John Hennigan, I didn't even have to think about that. It just came up: "Oh, we only need three votes." Being a huge fan helped me a lot. 

Hypothetical scenario: a future Survivor player comes up to you and asks for advice on how to win. What do you tell them?

First, make sure you help with the shelter on the first day. (Laughs.) Seriously, be open to everything. Don't be closed-minded. The mistakes I made were when I didn't work with Alison and Kara enough. I didn't give them much of a chance. Next thing I knew, they're two of the final five. Things don't always break your way, so be willing to work with anyone. Be open and have relationships with everybody. Most importantly? Have as much fun as possible. Play as hard as you can. Play to win. The reason our season is so good and people have responded to it so well is that everyone out there knew it was a game, but we also loved each other. Everyone did what they had to do to win. When that happens, it creates an environment that encourages gameplay. It's a huge part of our success. So, work on the shelter, have fun and play hard.

As someone who is both a big fan of the franchise and as someone who would play again given the chance, where do you feel Survivor needs to head next? What do you hope for in the next stage of the show's evolution, especially with season 40 and the 20th anniversary on the horizon?

One thing actually playing taught me is I like the fire-making challenge. For one, it makes it very difficult at the game. A final three alliance is useless. You can either have a final two or a final four, and then you can't really pick who's going to the end. It makes for more competitive final Tribal Councils. I don't think it's a coincidence that in only the second season of the fire-making challenge, we had our first tie ever. I think Survivor is going to naturally evolve on its own. It's only when you try to force things we have controversial votes or winners. With the fire-making challenge, we're taking the next step toward the next stage of Survivor. It shows how people are threats earlier and quicker than ever, and how the game is going to really start faster than ever. As soon as you hit the merge? You need to start getting out the threats.

Visit THR.com/Survivor for all of our David vs. Goliath coverage.