‘Survivor: Game Changers’ cast: Can Zeke Smith capitalize on unknown factor to outwit the other all-stars?

CBS’s “Survivor: Game Changers” is set to premiere on March 8 featuring a cast entirely composed of all-stars and, thematically speaking, players that in their past seasons changed the way the game of “Survivor” is played. One of those players is Zeke Smith, back for a second straight season following last year’s “Millennials vs. Gen X” (Season 33). Filming for “Game Changers” began a month after his first season wrapped and before anyone had a chance to see him play, so can Zeke use the “unknown factor” to outwit the other all-stars? Read my analysis of how his past performance is likely to impact his game and then make your own “Survivor” predictions ahead of the first episode.

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Zeke and fellow “Millennial” and “Game Changer” Michaela Bradshaw are the 10th and 11th contestants to play “Survivor” in back-to-back seasons, but only the third and fourth to film their second season before the first one had aired to audiences. Russell Hantz was the first to play with the unknown factor when he returned for “Heroes vs. Villains” and placed third. Malcolm Freberg, also on the “Game Changers” cast, was the second when he returned for “Caramoan” and finished ninth. As shown by the differing results between Russell and Malcolm’s second attempts, playing as an unknown among a cast of all-stars has both benefits and drawbacks.

For Zeke, a lifetime fan and student of the show, the positives are likely to outweigh the negatives. Zeke should know how to maneuver in and out of the expectations and questions that his new competition thrust upon him — indeed, he proved to be very good at communication in his original season. One of those expectations will be that one or both of them won their original season, the surest sign that they live up to the title of “game changer.” The reality is, of course, that the highest either placed was Zeke’s ninth place finish. To combat the false narrative that he won or even got close to winning Zeke will have to build trust, find protection from an alliance and defy the expectation that he’s an immediate threat.

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Luckily for Zeke, building trust and defying expectations is exactly what he excelled at in his original season. On his starting tribe of millennials, Zeke was immediately on the outside of the dominant alliance and had to appear as least threatening as possible to avoid early elimination. But when the tribal switch and then merge hit, Zeke fell into a power position and was able to slowly build up both authority and trust to put his own plans into action. I think Zeke has a self-awareness that is rare for most players of “Survivor” that allows him to know from which direction threats to his own safety are coming from.

To win “Game Changers,” not only will Zeke have to navigate playing against some of the best competitors in series history, but he’ll have to finesse his own style of play to a point where he’s pulling strings from behind the scenes rather than out in the open as he was just before he was eliminated the first time. Like Cirie Fields, Zeke is incredibly good at the social game, but can be perceived as too dangerous if allowed in front of a jury to plead his case for the win — finding the right balance to avoid that perception is his ticket to the final tribal council.

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Get a closer look at the Season 34 contestants by clicking through our cast photo gallery. In our “Survivor” predictions center, you get to answer the following questions before each episode airs on CBS every Wednesday at 5 p.m. PT / 8 p.m. ET.:

Who will win “Survivor”?

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Who will win Immunity?

Will a hidden idol be played?

Will anybody quit or be medevaced?

Who will win ‘Survivor: Game Changers’? See exclusive odds

Gold Derby readers just like YOU often turn out to be our smartest prognosticators, so it’s important that you give us your predictions. You can continue to update and change your forecasts throughout the week, just click “Save” when you’ve settled on your choices. You’ll compete to win bragging rights and a place of honor on our leaderboard. Be sure to read our contest rules and sound off on the season of “Survivor” in our reality TV forum.

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