The Impossible Challenge!

Speed learner Max Deutsch is testing the limits of self-improvement. Next up: the world’s greatest chess player

By Ben Cohen
Updated Nov. 17, 2017 10:56 a.m. ET

HAMBURG, Germany— Max Deutsch went through a month of training before he traveled across the ocean, sat down in a regal hotel suite at the appointed hour and waited for the arrival of the world’s greatest chess player.

Max was not very good at chess himself. He’s a 24-year-old entrepreneur who lives in San Francisco and plays the sport occasionally to amuse himself. He was a prototypical amateur. Now he was preparing himself for a match against chess royalty. And he believed he could win.

The unlikely series of events that brought him to this stage began last year, when Max challenged himself to a series of monthly tasks that were ambitious bordering on absurd. He memorized the order of a shuffled deck of cards. He sketched an eerily accurate self-portrait. He solved a Rubik’s cube in 17 seconds. He developed perfect musical pitch and landed a standing back-flip. He studied enough Hebrew to discuss the future of technology for a half-hour.

Max, a self-diagnosed obsessive learner, wanted his goals to be so lofty that he would fail to reach some. At that, he failed. Max was 11-for-11.

He knew from the beginning of his peculiar year that the hardest challenge would come in October: defeating Magnus Carlsen in a game of chess.

Magnus Carlsen is a 26-year-old world champion from Norway who has become a global celebrity because of chess. He belongs alongside Garry Kasparov and Bobby Fischer in any conversation about the most talented players ever.

Max’s original idea had been to beat a computerized simulation of Magnus. But when The Wall Street Journal stumbled across his “Month to Master” project while reporting another story, it offered to put him in touch with the real-life version. Max was game.

So was Magnus. It was undeniably a stunt, but it was also about something bigger, a grand experiment in human performance. Max’s adventure had implications for children and parents, workers in any industry and really anyone interested in self-improvement. At the heart of their chess match was a question about success: Can we hack our brains in a way that radically accelerates the traditional learning curve?

“Huh,” Magnus said. “Why not?”

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