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How Vanessa Rousso Played a Frustratingly Brilliant Big Brother Game (Despite Not Winning)

The 18th season of ‘Big Brother’ has arrived and it features Tiffany Rousso, the younger sister of Vanessa Rousso from ‘Big Brother 17’ — the subject of the following essay, originally posted online on Sep. 23, 2015

The poker world was abuzz about this season’s “Big Brother” when it was announced that one of its all-time legendary players, Vanessa Rousso, was going to compete. Within the past decade, she has amassed over $4 million in winnings as she ranks among the top five women in poker history. Vanessa used her apt skills from poker and made it to finale night. She was the clear standout of “Big Brother 17,” but not necessarily a fan favorite. Along the way, Vanessa Rousso gave us many reasons to be frustrated with her:

Vanessa was part of the establishment

When the live feeds first turned on in June, we saw Vanessa laying down upon one of the dentist chairs because she was a Have-Not that week. She was dejected and depressed, greatly missing the life she had before entering the house. Since she was an introvert, Vanessa was a non-entity early on. But that position changed drastically shortly thereafter. Beginning with Shelli’s first Head of Household reign, Vanessa was put into the forefront as joined in with Shelli, Shelli’s mate Clay, Austin, Liz, and later, Liz’s sister Julia as a member of the strong Sixth Sense alliance. It was a partnership that ruled the house for the entire month of July.

People often root for the underdogs, not the favorites. Granted, being born and bred in the Bronx, I am a New York Yankees fan, but I recognize there is a greatly significant negative sentiment nationally towards my favorite baseball team. Simply put, the Yankees have won for many, many years, as their 27 world championships have shown. The same popular anti-rooting interests apply to other historically victorious clubs like the Dallas Cowboys, the Los Angeles Lakers, and the Notre Dame Fighting Irish football team.

The Sixth Sense alliance ran the house for a long while, and their constant presence grew tedious. Their victories were too plentiful for cheer. 

Vanessa embraced community that involved herself above all

During her several Head of Household reigns, it was evident that a big part of Vanessa’s game was not being held solely responsible for any actions. Whether it was deciding to target Jeff or plotting to backdoor Austin or even backtracking on the targeting-Austin plan, Vanessa made sure they were communal decisions, obtaining support for all that she has done. 

In the occasional days she was not in power, as in the week James was Head of Household for the second time, Vanessa’s penchant for constant conversation turned to overdrive. With her two closest allies on the chopping block then, Shelli and Clay, Vanessa quickly bounced from group-to-group to join in on various talks going on in the house. If one did not know who was actually nominated for eviction, one would think Vanessa was the target based on her paranoia.

Vanessa as a victim

Another key aspect to Vanessa’s strategy was referred to in a phrase she repeated over and over again this season: she didn’t “want to get any blood on” her “hands.” What most upset Vanessa all season was being accused of having sole fault for any of her actions.

Clay once told Vanessa it was her decision that got sent Jason home and caused his and Shelli’s nominations for eviction, leading to her immediate open meltdown in the backyard.

One would think a million-dollar poker player would possess an even keel attitude throughout. But Vanessa’s tear-filled outbursts also occurred when Julia accused her of manipulating her to face off against Austin at the bowling veto challenge, and when explaining the eviction of Austin to Liz. 

For someone who has lorded over the game for the three long months, some ownership by Vanessa of her feelings, decisions and activities (especially to us in the Diary Room) would’ve made observing her much more pleasant.

Vanessa’s constant placating to unpopular showmances

Two couples formed close relationships within the house: Clay and Shelli, Austin and Liz.

Clay and Shelli only first kissed on the night before Clay’s eviction but they had constantly isolated themselves together in the weeks prior, especially laying together in the Head of Household bedroom.

After weeks of persistence by Austin, Liz couldn’t resist his charms and finally became his girl. 

The sessions of a romantic nature were nauseating enough to watch, but really spoiling the environment was the increasing entitlement any of the Sixth Sense alliance had felt. As if their actions deserved little consequence or backlash. Winning came nearly simple for these particular players but as mentioned previously in this article, their victories didn’t exactly breed content for most fans.

Amidst all of this, Vanessa strongly supported the couples, through and through. Two of her fellow house guests that were Have Nots alongside Vanessa that first week were Liz and Austin, both of whom she would form the longest lasting bonds.

When Shelli felt no one was happy to see Clay win his power of veto, Vanessa capitulated, leading to the eviction of Jason. When Liz and Julia were eviction nominees, Vanessa deemed it as the twins’ decision of who should leave. When Vanessa became the Head of Household at Final Five, her true target was Johnny Mac and not Austin/Liz. 

The traditional strategical move to split up couples in the Big Brother house wasn’t ever an initial consideration for Vanessa.

Vanessa’s gaming overwhelms

It comes as no surprise her approach to the “Big Brother” game was similar to the game of poker. The different cards that are dealt, the reads and tells of fellow players and the decisions on how to play hands are a constant.

Vanessa’s thoughts on strategy were nearly non-stop. Her go-to maneuver whenever a fellow ally would come in to power was instructing them on how he or she should handle their game… with benefits to her own game, of course.

Vanessa was adamant all summer long about keeping to her word. Her word was golden. She once even proudly proclaimed, “I stick to my deals” — a statement made two weeks after her creation then destruction of the Dark Moon alliance (that meant to target Austin). Becky heavily put her on notice for her duplicity, but luckily for Vanessa during Becky’s HOH reign, then-fellow eviction nominee Shelli was seen as more of a threat to the Goblins (James, Jackie, Meg).

As for mentioning to Vanessa about her full-on game, as James had done on August 29… she didn’t want to hear it, and played the victim card yet again.

For all these frustrating aspects to the persona of Vanessa within the “Big Brother” house, they also pertain to the brilliance of her game that was one of the series’ best and ingenious ever, even though she came up empty and finished outside of the Final 2.

Game-wise, it made logical sense to align with those who can best win challenges and attain power so to stay as long as possible.

Vanessa’s apparent lack of selfishness was a huge benefit for her game. It made others feel involved and valued in her decision making. Another popular female poker on another reality competition enacted this same strategy: Annie Duke on “Celebrity Apprentice” in 2009 who later ended up in the final two (opposite the legendary Joan Rivers, who won that season). Like Annie Duke, Vanessa propped herself as a necessary asset for others. And as difficult as it was to watch, her emotions in playing the role of victim worked with those in the house because it evoked the sympathy she hoped to receive.

It was bothersome to witness Vanessa leaving couples intact for so long (and intending to do so), but lest not forget, Liz and Austin (and before them, Shelli and Clay) were closest with Vanessa (and vice versa). Vanessa’s loyalty shined through and it paid dividends. It managed her survival through the storm Becky had caused in Becky’s attempt to damage her game. And with the presence of couples within the house, they’ll always be seen as a bigger threat as opposed to an individual. Vanessa used them as a shield of protection from outer factions.

In essence, it was this that made Vanessa’s game play an all-time classic: unlike Derrick of “Big Brother 16,” most in the house KNEW about Vanessa’s many shady moves yet STILL kept her around because they (specifically, the Austwins) believed she was someone else’s problem.

As most of those would later discover, especially Austin, Vanessa was most certainly their problem.

A problem winner Steve Moses knew all too well the longer Vanessa remained. He dealt with that problem on finale night with this swift eviction as HOH:

Vanessa Rousso joins a select company of the best non-winners in “Big Brother” history, alongside Danielle Reyes of “Big Brother 3” and Janelle Pierzina of “Big Brother 6” and “Big Brother All-Stars (Big Brother 7).”

Steve’s $500,000 grand prize on September 23, 2015 was deserved. The eviction of the powerhouse that was Vanessa was vital in that victory.