Success on the Felt and on the Sand

Jonathan Little

From French legend Jean-Robert Bellande to Boston Rob Mariano, poker and Survivor go together like strawberries and cream, or to use a poker-related comparison, like Phil Hellmuth and a topside beef sandwich. The challenges, the survival instinct, the mental and physical feats of endurance. If you’re good at one, you’re often great at the other too. Sometimes, however, just like in a poker game, things don’t quite go to plan.

We’ve picked seven of the best poker players and Survivor stars and compared their results both on the sand and at the poker felt.

Jean-Robert Bellande

The French poker legend was a huge source of conflict in Survivor: China, and was voted out of contention in 9th place of the 16 contestants. Known for rubbing his tribemates up the wrong way, Bellande’s tactics seemed to center around being as chaotic as possible the longer the game went on, calling out his fellow players and eventually being blindsided at the Tribal Council vote.

Often calling other players for being ‘weak’, JRB targeted James Clement in the final nine, accusing him of having concealed Immunity Idols, but this only riled Todd Herzog to identify JRB himself as the bigger threat and vote him out instead. At the poker felt, JRB could hardly be more impressive, coming second in a WSOP event in 2008, and winning almost $3 million in live ranking tournaments alone.

Bellande isn’t a tournament player by profession, however. His prowess at the cash game felt is legendary and over the years, he has won millions while swigging form his trademark glass of red wine that seems to be as much of a presence neat to him as a gigantic pile of poker chips.

In 2019, Jean-Robert’s wife, Veronica, gave birth to their twins and while he balances poker with family life these days and is unlikely to play Survivor again, we’d never rule it out. He remains a legend at the cash game felt, almost a perennial presence in the PokerGO Studio for programs such as High Stakes Poker or Poker After Dark.

Here is a clip of JR being praised by the eventual winner of Survivor China; Todd, on his strategic gameplay.

Anna Khait

“There’s a lot of skill required, but there’s also a lot of luck, just like in poker.”

Anna Khait is a former professional poker player in her own words and has currently stopped playing the game for her living. Taking part in Survivor Series 32, she was the fifth person voted out, but despite her comparatively early elimination from the process, was one of the show’s fan favorites.

Now calling herself an ‘atheist who found Jesus’, Anna had the backing of the poker industry at the time of her elimination, garnering a positive response from players such as World Poker Tour Player of the Year Matt Salsberg.

Darnnnn. I feel like I disappointed a lot of people, the poker community, my family, myself. Sucks, but Hey, I loved every minute!

— Anna Khait (@Annakhait) March 17, 2016

Khait’s words after her exit from the TV show shed a little light on the symmetry between the game of poker and Survivor.

“In [Survivor], there’s a lot of twists and turns,” she said after being eliminated from the show. “There’s a lot of skill required, but there’s also a lot of luck, just like in poker. You have to balance how to make the best decisions, and sometimes, there’s just nothing you can do but try your best. I fought for my life, and they didn’t show some stuff, but I really fought. It just so happened that it didn’t work out in my favor, and that’s OK. It happens sometimes. You learn and you move on.”

Robert ‘Boston Rob’ Mariano

Perhaps the most successful player in Survivor history, ‘Boston Rob’ Mariano is the only player in Survivor’s long TV reign to have appeared in six seasons of the show, playing in five. Placing 10th in the fourth season of the show, he then went on to finish as runner-up in Survivor: All-Stars, where he met his wife, and the season-winner, Amber Mariano (nee Brkich). The couple now have four children, all girls, and their popularity is matched only by their down-to-Earth nature.

Mariano has since entered Survivor folklore, going on to win the 22nd season of the show and appeared on three other occasions, more than anyone in the show. When he first appeared, he was just 25 years old. Now 48, ‘Boston Rob’, who was born in Boston, Massachusetts, is not only a Survivor legend but a poker player in his own right.

Having proposed to his now-wife Amber on the eve of the show’s conclusion, Boston Rob became a family favorite but he is no mean poker player and is a brand ambassador for PokerGO, partnering with them in 2023. Playing The Amazing Race twice with his wife Amber (coming second and eighth), Mariano has cashed dozens of times in ranking poker events, winning almost a quarter of a million dollars at the live poker felt. With his first cash coming in a Calvin Ayre Wild Card Poker Tournament in Costa Rica, his love of island life extended to the poker felt in late 2023 too, as he came 256th in the WSOP Paradise Main Event. Only a few months earlier, Mariano came 1,292nd in the 54th WSOP Main Event in Las Vegas, making him a rare poker player who has cashed in two WSOP Main Events in one calendar year.

Garrett Adelstein

He may be known as a cash game king who once lost to jack-four but Garrett Adelstein is a Survivor legend too. Experiencing the opposite fortune to Rob Mariano, Adelstein was selected to appear in Survivor: Cagayan, Season 28 of the hit show… only to be voted out second, never to appear again. This reflected a massive disappointment to Adelstein, who was said to have studied 2,000 hours of Survivor footage in a bid to win, including practicing previous challenges.

Adelstein was initially placed on the Brains team of the show and looked to have survived after a tricky start to the season, finding an ‘Immunity Idol’. The Brains team couldn’t vote him out first but a second loss led to Adelstein being ‘blindsided’ by his fellow tribemates and with an Idol in his pocket, he was voted off the show.

Since appearing in Survivor in 2014, Adelstein has become a big name in the poker world. A cash game player of huge repute, his ability to process poker over thousands of hands and his natural ability to shine under the pressure of appearing on camera has earned him a reputed $1.5 million in Hustler Casino Live cash games alone, where the action is live-streamed.

The came Robbi Jade Lew, who called Adelstein’s bluff with just jack-four, with jack-high turning out to be the winning hand against Adelstein’s bluff straight draw. Suspecting foul play, Adelstein was alleged to have hustled Lew into giving him the money back, calling her a cheat outright in the days, weeks and months that followed. Taking a year off, Adelstein became a father and has since returned to live-streamed cash games, even beating Eric Persson in one hand with ‘The Robbi’, a.k.a. jack-four.

Ronnie Bardah

Hopes were high for Ronnie Bardah when he took part in the recent Survivor: Island of the Idols show, the 39th season of the CBS series. A former WSOP bracelet winner in 2012, Bardah was not only a crusher in the six-max WSOP event he won for $182,088 but cashed in five WSOP Main Events during 2011 and 2021.

Sadly for Bardah and his many fans, he was the first castaway eliminated from the game, and never really saw the Island of the Idols come to life, voted out by seven votes to two. Coming 20th in the game, Bardah may not have had the Survivor success of players such as Rob Mariano but his prowess at the poker felt is quite superb.

Over the course of his poker career, Bardah has cashed for over $2.1 million in tournaments alone. His biggest cash wasn’t his bracelet win, either. In 2010, he made it down to the final three tables of the WSOP Main Event, eventually coming 24th for a huge score of $317,161. That’s not his biggest win, however. Just a couple of years ago in 2021, he came third in the WPT Lucky Hearts Poker Open, winning an incredible $566,135, the second-biggest prize of the event, after a late three-way deal.

Two Other Poker Players Who Made it to the Final Stages

Poker player Jim Rice took part in Season 23 of Survivor, in the South Pacific, lasting 24 days of the 39 before being voted out after the tribes merged. The 10th player to be voted out, Rice was a little unlucky not to go further and the medical marijuana dispenser, who worked on Wall Street before turning to TV fame, was blindsided late in the day when he attempted his own coup only to find himself on the wrong side of the vote.

Rice, who called himself ‘the most unique person to ever apply’ to the show, has won over $367,455 at the live poker felt, with his biggest live cash coming way back in 2006 when he took down the Festa Al Lago event in Las Vegas. Outlasting players such as Chip Jett (6th) and Poker Hall of Famer Brian Rast (4th) in Sin City, Rice beat Jean Gaspard heads-up for the win, his only major ranking title.

Rice was outlasted in the same season of Survivor: South Pacific by Albert Destrade, who made it all the way to the final ‘Sole Survivor’ vote where he lost to winner Sophie Clarke in the final vote. Destrade demonstrated natural leader capabilities on the island and other than Mariano, is the most successful Survivor star who also enjoy poker.

Winning $224,641 at the live poker felt, Destrade has one ranking title to his name, the 2015 Isle Classic at Pompano Beach where he beat Ira Schwartz for a title-winning top prize of $105,000. Destrade cashed twice in the 2023 World Series of Poker, in particular coming 403rd in the Monster Stack bracelet event, which had 8,317 entries and a total prizepool of $11.1 million.

In Conclusion

Over the years, poker players and Survivors have cross-matched with huge success. There’s been a Survivor winner in the form of ‘Boston Rob’ Mariano and a WSOP bracelet winner in the shape of Ronnie Bardah. It can’t be long before a Survivor winner also takes down a major prize in the poker world. We’d give Mariano the edge as a crossbook bet purely due to his natural charm and ambassadorship for the biggest broadcasting partner in the game.

Author: Timothy Adams