Ken Hoang: “I’m mentally prepared. I’m not going to choke; I’m not going to freak out”

Ken Hoang has been watching Survivor since the “race war” season, Survivor Cook Islands, during which producers recruited 85 percent of the cast because of the low numbers of non-white applicants. Ken told me that when he watched, he thought, “hey, guys like me can compete,” and that’s why he applied for the show. In other words, his interest and eventual casting are due to that season’s inclusion of a more racially diverse cast.

In our conversation, Ken had an intriguing mix of exuberant confidence and naivete. For example, talking about being called back even after producers first said they weren’t interested, he said, “I think that I’ve worked harder than anyone else to out here to even get to this point. I got called the second time. No one’s ever done that.” He also called himself a “huge fan of the show” and seemed confident in his complete understanding of it, even though he’s only watched the last four seasons.

In addition, while he probably has a better understanding than some of the recruited cast members who just crammed via DVD, and while not that having a clearly defined strategy in advance is a good idea, Ken’s ideas about how he’d play the game were all over the place. At various points, he talked about being the tribe’s provider, “puzzle master,” underestimated weaker member, backstabber, and moral support. Can he really do all that at once?

Ken is a professional gamer, but he’s also a full-time college student studying illustration, and calls gaming “a part-time job,” even though he’s a world champion. He called Survivor both “the ultimate game” and “a dirty game,” and said he’ll have no problem lying or backstabbing. “In the end, it’s all mental,” he said. “I’m mentally prepared. I’m not going to choke; I’m not going to freak out. And those are reasons for people to vote you off in this game.”

As to how he’ll win the mental game, Ken said it just comes down to a single moment during the 39 days. “I believe that it doesn’t matter how much you screw people over in the game. Once you get to the jury, you can convince them to vote for you,” he said. Of course, you have to make it to the end first, and because Ken is the smallest male physically, that might be difficult.

However, he considers that to be an advantage, and is basically begging people to underestimate him and view him as weak like they did with Yau-Man. “The girls would want to align themselves with someone like me rather than a strong threat,” Ken told me. “I am the underdog on this. … I am the smallest guy out here, looking around, these big buff guys. How good at they at balancing? How good are they at keeping their arm up? How fast are they? How smart are they? You don’t know.”

Discussing his preparation, he said he’s been practicing making fires, sleeping outside, and “training for this physically, too. Going to the gym every day–got some muscle, got a little six pack going. I’m ready,” he said, actually showing off his muscles. And he’s not bothered by the elements, bragging in his unassuming, gentle way that he hadn’t had any water all day (we talked around 11:30 a.m.), and in his first answer, excitedly shared how many bug bites (12) he’d already gotten, which is odd and amusing all at once.

As the preceding paragraph suggests, his tendency to be lighthearted yet serious seems to define him, and he’ll be interesting to watch in the context of the game, because I’m unsure how it’ll affect him. He also smiled constantly and has an engaging personality–and knows that. “With my personality, I think it’ll make the tribe better because when you’re suffering out there, you have to have a sense of humor, or course,” he said. “I don’t want to be the guy who’s bossing: ‘Do this, do that, we’re going to die.’ I’m never negative.”

That positivity and personality is apparent in every answer. Hear it come through as Ken talks about being in Africa, his strategy, and how others perceive him: