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.
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?”