October 20, 2019

An Interview With a Reality TV Survivor

Ronnie Bardah on "SURVIVOR: Island of Idols" Photo by Robert Voets/CBS Entertainment

“When are you going to finally try Survivor?” That’s the question that some of my closest friends would relentlessly ask me for years. They knew I was TV obsessed, and watched dozens of shows at a time, but my answer was always the same, “nah, I don’t watch reality TV, not interested”. Year after year went by. At first it aired the same night as “ER” and “Seinfeld,” (remember “must-see TV”?) and I’d even watch whatever mediocre sitcom they’d sandwich between “Friends” and “Seinfeld” (hi “The Single Guy”, looking at you “Veronica’s Closet”). More time passed and I’d watch “Breaking Bad” as easily as “Arrow,” but still would not watch the show about people competing for a million bucks by taking their shirts off and living on an island. Nothing about that compelled me, even compared to the garbage I was often watching.

Then, my wife and I went on our honeymoon. We were finishing our wonderful few weeks in New Zealand when the saddle of my horse slid off with me on it. My elbow was broken. My wife who had forced me to wear a helmet was proven correct. Our honeymoon turned into six months of state disability, since I couldn’t work as a nurse with a broken elbow, and it took the doctors three months just to figure out that it required surgery. In that time two of those same close friends hounded me. They said, “Listen, you’re off work, we’ll come over and hang out with you IF you finally try a season of “Survivor.” If you don’t like it, we’ll never bring it up again.” Fine, if I was going to be stuck at home glued to my idiot-box anyway, I may as well do it with friends and finally try their favorite show. It was June of 2015, and by the time I returned to work on October 1st, I had watched nine seasons. Yep, I was hooked, the show was like crack to me. These two friends Mike Burgher and Jared Rubin strategically showed me Season 28 (Cagayan) to get the ball rolling, and two of the players from that season are still my favorites to this day (Tony and Spencer). What I didn’t realize is that what had started as a show about people surviving on an island trying to outlast each other had evolved into a show with tremendous game theory. It was less about who you liked and who could fish and build a shelter, and far more about social strategy, puzzle-solving, reading people, and knowing what to say and do when. No wonder it was so much fun, I loved playing and watching poker!  

Ronnie Bardah had already won a poker World Series bracelet in 2012, and was in the “Guinness Book of World Records” for placing in the money in the main event of the World Series of Poker for an insane five years in a row (between 2010 and 2015), a record that might never be broken. Since 2002 I had been hosting weekly (legal) poker games.  In 2012, my poker-pro friend Jared (one of the same friends who binged me on “Survivor”) brought Ronnie to my silly home game. Cut to 2016, the four of us friends were watching the show together. We’d discuss each episode like it was a passion project, and fantasize about how cool it would be to ever be on the show. For me, Mike and Jared these were silly hypotheticals, none of us even considered applying; for Ronnie, a competitive poker player, a Muay Thai kickboxer just for fun, a guy who took every red cent he earned and bought his father a house to live in, this was to become a reality.

Next week, on Wednesday 9/25, Ronnie’s first season of Survivor will premiere on CBS, and I can’t wait to watch and see what happens! I’ll be watching my friend compete in my favorite show, a truly surreal first-time experience for me. I had the pleasure of being granted a phone interview via CBS with Ronnie.

Me: Please tell me about your family.

Ronnie Bardah: My dad and mom were both from Israel, and they were the only two who left. My older brother lives in Texas, my mom and sister are in Boston, and my dad is in Henderson, Nevada, right by Las Vegas. I grew up in a blue-collar part of Massachusetts called Brockton.

Me: What was it like being a Jewish kid in Brockton? 

Ronnie: Brockton is a great city. But growing up as the only Israelis in the town was a challenge. There was nobody to relate to, and I couldn’t blend in if I tried – and I did try at times. There were a few other Jews around town, and for a while as a kid I’d tell people I was Jewish, but they’d make jokes so I kind of hid it for a while. My first crush when I was 12 was Laura, a religious Christian. Her dad was even a Deacon, and I wanted so badly to fit in with them, so I went to church and tried to be like the rest of the Christians to fit in. I just didn’t want to seem Jewish, which I was given a hard time about. Then I went to tell my old friends that I was Christian now, but they told me “You’ll always be a Jesus-Killer. A kike. A dirty Jew”. I’d tell them, “No, I’m Christian now, not Jewish!” but then gave up when it didn’t make a dent. And after some time when they would say I was cheap, or any other stereotype you can think of, it started to feel like it was just friends kidding around. They came at me hard as the only Jew in the neighborhood. The jokes didn’t end, but I remained friends with many of them until today. 

At some point when I got older, I realized that some of these jokes from friends really weren’t jokes.  I could feel the malice in their words and tone. I could tell they actually meant some of what they were saying, whereas with others I could tell it was just good, dumb fun. I’m intentionally not friends with some of those guys anymore as a result. As you get older you can read people better; something that became a huge skill later in life with my poker career. 

And when I grew older I embraced my Judaism and wanted to be more a part of the tribe. I loved going to Israel, and discovered a lot of what being Jewish is all about. 

Me: Did they also give you a hard time about your parents being Israeli?

Ronnie: In my community, nobody cared about Israel, they didn’t pay attention to politics. My mom knew about the politics and talked about it with us, and in 1996 we went on a family trip in Israel which was great, but they also got divorced that year, so a lot changed.  It’s funny, people tell me “you don’t look Jewish, you look Latino”, but Israelis recognize me and start speaking Hebrew to me right when they see me, so I can’t hide it and really don’t want to anymore.

Me: How did your family feel about you initially going into poker for a living, Did it make them nervous that you were gambling all the time?

Ronnie: They didn’t take the time to give me much guidance as a child. They were busy arguing and fighting and leaving each other. My dad was constantly in the casino, so half my family trips were to dog-tracks or casinos like Foxwoods on weekends, so I grew up in that environment. My dad likes what I do but also says dumb things to me about it because he doesn’t get the skill of poker, meanwhile he gambles every game under the sun. But my mom to this day says, “Find a nice Jewish girl, find a real job and just settle down”, and I get that she means it should all become more conducive to raising a family. I can do that and settle and not travel anymore and be more stable I really can do that, She wants me to have a standard stable life with a normal job title and normal job hours and be structured. Ultimately I know she just wants me to have a girlfriend and settle down, and there are ways I could travel less and do what I’m doing but with more stability. I get that, and I want that too.

Me: If any single ladies (or Jewish mothers of single ladies) are reading this, what are you looking for in a soulmate?

Ronnie: I just want someone who’s active, exercises, spiritual, compassionate and empathetic like myself. I like rational people, who are calm and collected, spontaneous, travel the world, and spiritual. Honestly, an American Israeli, born here with Israeli parents would be great!

Me: Do you think you’ll be playing poker in 20 years? At higher stakes?

Ronnie: Poker has been great, it allows me to travel the world, even if I’m getting ready to stay put a bit more. I want to do something else too, but I think I’ll play until the day I die. My dad was never profitable, but I think I’ll always be profitable. The game gets tougher and the kids playing it keep getting smarter, but I’m so good at getting a feel for the table and reading people, that I really think I’ll be profitable until the day I get buried. So yes, I think I’ll always play.

Me: Did you really buy your dad a house with your winnings?

Ronnie: Yeah I did about two and a half years years ago, I thought I could be set financially enough to do it, and I wanted to provide for him. He was in a housing project and he lives solely on social security, so I paid for it and I continue to pay for it. Here’s the thing, poker is never guaranteed income. I’ve successfully done it for 17 years but now this means I “have to make money” to pay it off. So it’s scary. I can’t go broke or I don’t pay his mortgage!

Me: You and I bonded over poker and Survivor, how long have you been watching the show?

Ronnie: I started watching when most people did, in its first season, but then I got busy, played countless hours of poker, and stopped watching most TV. Then Season 22 (Redemption Island) aired, when Boston Rob bulldozed over everyone else. I caught that, and it was epic. And then I’d see him at the World Series of Poker and I’d be so excited, but I never approached him. When (poker pro) Anna Khait played in season 32 (Kaôh Rōng) I watched again. And then about 4 years ago I got hooked religiously. I kept watching and decided “I want to play this game, and need to audition”. I tried one time and sent my audition tape and they took me! 

Me: How strictly did you need to keep this a secret from your friends? Who were you allowed to tell? 

Ronnie: A lot of people know I’m a huge fan and I was gonna try to get on, so once I got in and wasn’t allowed to tell friends, I had to lie and say, “ No It didn’t work out and nobody called me back”. Once I was cast I knew I’d have no contact with anyone, not even phone access, so I told people I was going on a yoga retreat. Something I would totally do. Thankfully, they tell you to tell your family. I didn’t want to tell my mom since she has a big mouth, so I hinted it to my mom, told my dad, brother and sister and my ex (girlfriend at the time). They all signed NDAs (Non-Disclosure Agreements).

Me: There have been a handful of poker players on Survivor in the past, they always thought It would help them win, but none of them have. Did you learn anything from them playing that you think might make you succeed where they couldn’t?

Ronnie: Jean-Robert (Bellande) was lazy, he didn’t do much, didn’t have much gameplay or strategy. I didn’t learn much for him other than that if you want to get anywhere in the game you gotta make moves at the right time, and make alliances too. With Garrett Adelstein I just learned to do the opposite of whatever he did, it was all executed so poorly. I also learned that you gotta get some fat on you when you go out there. He was a chiseled man in amazing shape, but you don’t want to have 0% body fat when you go out there, you want a bunch of fat to burn, you need it there. Anna (Khait) got screwed; she played the best of all previous poker players, and got unlucky. There’s so much luck involved in Survivor, so much variance: whoever you’re put with, the makeup of tribes, the different personalities. You could be the coolest guy in the block but if those guys don’t think so it can backfire and you’ll be seen as annoying and voted off right away. I prepped for the show best just from watching smart players like Wendell (Holland),  Jeremy (Collins), Boston Rob (Mariano), Cirie (Fields), and Denise (Stapley). Forget the poker players, we’re all different. Just like doctors and lawyers aren’t the same personality, the same with us. Some sit there and don’t talk, others like me are social. There’s no pattern to our personalities. 

Me: Do  you think poker and “Survivor” are similar?

Ronnie: I think playing cards gives me many tools to play the game. I mentioned in my pre-game interviews that knowing how people perceive you is huge in Survivor. At the poker table I’ll get into a tournament and notice 7 or 8 people who are also strong, so instead of clashing with them I’ll join them in attacking the weaker players. But then other times I can tell that they perceive me as doing exactly that, so I’ll use that poker-read to blindside them. You gotta be one level ahead of the next guy. I’m a numbers guy too but most of my success is about my maneuverability; it’s second to none, knowing when to sit back and let a hand go and when to push the pedal to the gas and attack. In the game of Survivor a huge component is knowing when to fall back and stay out of things versus when to make moves. But at the same time, let’s remember that at poker you’re comfortable with food being brought to you and things taken care of around you. In the show, you’re in your underwear weathering the elements. So how you feel while everything is happening is just gonna be different. That’s inevitable.

Me: Do you get nervous when you play poker? And do you think you’ll be nervous competing on Survivor?

Ronnie: Of course! You’re more anxious than nervous. With poker some days I feel like my heart is steady and never increases no matter what happens, but sometimes depending on what’s happening in my life, how I’m physically or mentally feeling, I’ll get sweaty and anxious.  I’ve had times where I’ve been calm all day at the casino playing high stakes, and then I feel different that evening and I’ll be playing at your cheap home-game , and every bluff I make makes me super nervous. I think that how you are feeling in your life parallels how you’re gonna feel in the Survivor. The same cast last year would play and feel totally different this year, because they feel different and therefore act different. I’m sure I’ll be nervous some of the time.

Me: How important is it to you that Jeff Probst (host and executive producer), the producers and the fans “like” you? Would you rather be a subtle player who gets by with less of a target on his back and goes further, but is less likely to be invited back to play again, or a player taking bigger risks with  becomes a bigger target, but is more likely to be invited back?

Ronnie: I would like to be a combo of both of those things. In Survivor you can’t full-force be that guy who’s cracking the jokes, talking trash about others, and being open in tribal councils for great TV, because they’ll shoot you down. There’s ways to balance it. My plan is to be crazy in confessionals, where you can be who you are, talk trash about everyone, and you can showcase your personality. Nobody can see or hear you but the people holding the cameras. Within the game you can strategically be the person you want them to see you as. At some point it’s gonna show who you really are, there’s a fine line you’re gonna have to walk. Everyone wants to be memorable.  But at the end of the day winning is what matters most, that’s my first priority. Paying my dad’s mortgage is my top priority. Way more important than being invited back. But I would love to be like Boston Rob or Sandra (Diaz-Twine) or Ozzy (Lusth) and come back every season if they’d let me.

Ronnie Bardah can be seen on the season premiere of “Survivor: Island of the Idols” (season 39), airing 8 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 25, on CBS.


Boaz Hepner grew up in LA in Pico/Robertson and now lives here with his wife and baby girl. Thus, the neighborhood is very important to him. He helped clean up the area by adding the dozens of trash cans that can still be seen from Roxbury to La Cienega. When he is not working as Registered Nurse in Santa Monica, he can be found with his wife and daughter enjoying his passions: his multitude of friends, movies, poker and traveling.