The poker player got played. Ronnie Bardah used the powers of observation he learned on the poker circuit to guide his gameplay on Survivor: Island of the Idols. But the professional cards player never saw the bluff coming.
Ronnie was the first contestant voted out of season 39 after his play to take out either the popular Elaine or well-positioned Vince backfired and he was blindsided out of the tribe. Why did it all go wrong? What’s his biggest regret? And how much does it sting the competitor to be the first one out?
We asked Ronnie all that and more, including what we didn’t see on TV, whether he bought Elizabeth’s lie about what went down at the Island of the Idols, and if he knows Boston Rob from the poker circuit. Read on to see what Ronnie had to say.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: I know you’re a competitive guy. So how much does this sting being the first one out?
RONNIE BARDAH: I mean, playing cards for a living for the last 17 years, I guess I’m used to losing, but of course it’s terrible. The thing about poker is you have many chances to win and to play the game. You can get knocked out and you could make up the next morning and play again. Well, in Survivor 95% of us only have about one shot, one time to play. So it really stunk. Of course it hurts.
You say as a poker player the thing you need to do is watch people to pick up clues. Did you pick anything up before the vote?
Yeah, when we were on lockdown for those few minutes before going to Tribal, I was looking around and I looked over at Chelsea and Tom, and as soon as I looked over at Chelsea, she quickly just looked at me in the really oddest way and looked down at the floor, and that was a sign and an indication that something was wrong. Same with Tom., We call them Tell Boxes in poker — they just couldn’t hold it. They just really gave it away in their facial expression. And I kind of knew something was going on. I wasn’t a hundred percent sure, obviously, but my radar was on. I just looked at both of them and they really couldn’t look me in the eye. It was terrible.
Why do you think your tribe took you out?
In the first few days out there, you really got to go out there and develop those connections and relationships and, I wasn’t well received, to be honest. No excuses, but I didn’t develop the relationships I needed to make in those few first days. And it’s really crucial. Things go by pretty quickly. Although, you know, Survivor time, three days feels like a month. But in the first few days you’re making shelter, you’re trying to build fire, look for food, make relationships. But I just didn’t get it done. If we had won the first immunity challenge, I would have a few more days to get my foot in with my tribe.
You seemed focused on getting Elaine out but then it switched to Vince. Why?
Well, Tom wasn’t really budging. Tom and Elaine really had a really strong relationship out there that we started to notice as we were throwing her name out and she came over. I remember that that conversation actually lasted a lot longer and she had a lot to say. And Vince ran around after we spoke in that little circle of me, Missy, Karishma, Aaron and Vince. And we spoke about Elaine and a few others, and then Vince went right off and then just ratted us all out. So we just directed the votes on Vince.
You wanted to get rid of Elaine because she was so likable and was going to make all these personal connections. Do you think that’s ultimately what did you in, that she just made too many connections early in the game?
Yeah, she was very likable. Basically the opposite of me. My whole life I’ve been well received in the poker world and my community everywhere. But out there in those first few days I felt that I knew what the perception of me was. She was able to win over the crowd and I wasn’t. In the game of Survivor, those first few days are really a popularity contest because we don’t have much to go off of in those first few days. She won the race out there in those first couple of days.
What did you make of Elizabeth’s story when she came back from the Island of the Idols and said she played a game and picked an urn and didn’t get an idol? Did you buy that?
When she presented her story to the tribe, I was out on a walk, so I wasn’t able to hear that conversation. When I got back, she took me aside and we had a one on one conversation right before a lockdown and I wasn’t quite sure. We sat down and she spoke about it and she just spoke and was like, “Yeah, I smashed it an urn.” And I knew there was a lot more going on with the Island of Idols when she went out there. And I knew her story was suspect and I didn’t believe her when we had that one on one conversation. I was going to do my due diligence later and chat her up a bit more, but I never had the chance. So to answer your question: No, I didn’t believe it.
What’s something we didn’t see out there that you wish had made it to air?
There was a conversation that Chelsea and I had that kind of was a turning point in my game. She was trying to work with me when I was building fire and I told her I would get to her in a second because she kind of approached me in front of a few people and I wanted to take her to the side, and I never did. I wish they showed that because that was really the turning point. Also, we had a lot of fun out there. We were chatting it up one night of the first night we were out there. I was beatboxing and everyone was rapping and we also just cracked a lot of jokes. I mean, there was a lot of good times, a lot of funny moments. But they never showed me really smiling at all. I looked pretty menacing and pretty mean to be honest.
I was laughing a bunch that night and there were some cool conversations. There was a lot of fun downtime and they didn’t show any of that, which, you know, it’s okay. They only have a certain time. And with the edit and what have you, you have to show both tribes, the Island up the Idols, Tribal Council, the immunity challenge. So it’s okay, but yeah, I wish they showed a little more of the fooling around and just having a good old time.
And on the flip side of that, you only see out there what you see through your own eyes. Now you’re watching on TV maybe getting to see some other things. Did anything surprise you watching the episode play back last night?
Yeah, the way I came off, like when Elaine called me a weasel. When I was speaking to her, I actually meant what I said to her. I wasn’t pulling a fast one on her. When I said, “Listen, I got your back,” it was the truth. And she had a really, really bad read on me. But watching me saying it to her, it did look a little disingenuous. It looked a little off. So I really don’t blame her for thinking that I was a weasel, but it’s so far from the truth. My reputation in the poker world and life alone is literally the polar opposite of a weasel. I’m the most trusted, outgoing, nice, friendliest person you can meet. And people literally trust me with their first newborn.
I mean it’s insane how I was framed and how the tribe viewed me. But I really came off that way. And that’s how the cookie crumbled at that point. And I knew. In a lot of my confessionals which they didn’t show, I said as a poker player, my strength is knowing how people perceive me. And I knew that I had a lot of work to do, to turn around how I was viewed and how I was perceived. I had to really mend the relationships, especially with the women in the tribe. And, unfortunately, I just didn’t have time to do so.
You never got to make it to Island of the idols. But did you know Boston Rob from poker circles at all?
I’ve seen Boston Rob. I’m a huge fan, but I’m not a guy to approach to ask somebody like, “Hey, can I take a picture?” But I was just heartbroken when I heard later they were there because Boston Rob grew up about 15 minutes from where I grew up in Canton, Mass. And I’m from Brockton. And Sandra is from Stamford, Connecticut. My first girlfriend was from Bridgeport and she had family in Stanford that was Puerto Rican. I know the Puerto Rican culture. I grew up in it for seven years. So to be able to go out there and be presented with Boston Rob and Sandra, just to see them out there would have been a dream come true. It’s unfortunate and it would have made for great TV.
If you could go back and change one thing about your game to maybe give you a different result, what would it be?
I was torn about speaking about it and I wasn’t sure if I was gonna mention in this interview, but I’m going to go on to say it cause I’m real and I just can’t really keep things. Before coming out, I got pretty sick. About three weeks to a month before coming out I had all these symptoms that I wasn’t sure what was going on. I saw a few doctors and there was no proof of any illness or whatever. And I took antibiotics that were prescribed that I wasn’t sure that would help. And they really wiped me out. I went out there and a few people tweeted and talked about “Ronnie that we didn’t really recognize you, that wasn’t you.”
It is with no excuses. I’m out here. I don’t want to sound like it was excuses, but it was a real thing. I felt pain all day. It was a threshold 10 and I wasn’t able to be my genuine self. You can’t really change that. So timing is everything. But if I could change anything, I guess I would’ve smiled a lot more. I would have taken a few deep breaths before certain conversations that I had out there and I would have aligned with Missy and Chelsea, who were literally the reason why I’m here now having this conversation with you because they swayed over to Tom, Elaine, and Vince. So it was really me, Karishma, and Aaron versus those three.
But to touch upon the sickness thing, I wasn’t completely myself out there. The timing was just off. I don’t live with regrets. I’m a guy who if something happens. I own it and that’s all it is. But to be honest, that’s what the real truth is.
Check out an exclusive Survivor deleted scene above. Also, make sure to also read our full recap as well as premiere episode Q&A with host Jeff Probst. And for more Survivor scoop, follow Dalton on Twitter @DaltonRoss.
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