Just how deep? In the two years since he watched his first football game, Makowsky keeps popping up in the Instagram accounts of many of the sport’s top young quarterbacks and has emerged as a confidant and the most unique QB guru in football. He helped Dwayne Haskins produce a record-setting debut season at Ohio State in 2018, has become a go-to guy for Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson as his NFL career continues to ascend and has a pilot program running with UCLA football, where more than just quarterbacks swear by him for their development.
Makowsky started playing chess when he was around five years old growing up on Long Island, but he wasn’t any chess prodigy. After graduating from Emory University in Atlanta with a degree in management, he was recruited by Coca-Cola where he worked five years before moving up in the corporate food and beverage world.
By 2011, he became the CEO of Earl of Sandwich, developing and operating the highest-grossing quick-service restaurants in the world located at Disney properties as well as major airports and casinos. Makowsky also became an advisor to the the founder of Panda Express and was granted full autonomy over the 2,000-plus restaurants to drive revenue, which included a price restructuring that resulted in $30 million annual profit. After completing his work for Panda Express in 2014, he created his own business advisory — the Makowsky Group — to help optimize other organizations and industries ranging from airports and airlines to hotels and restaurants to equity firms.
He credits his immersion into chess — and chess theory specifically, something that started a few years after college — for his career and personal life flourishing.
He flew to New York to study with chess masters and would also play with hustlers in Union Square Park who employed a completely different playing style. “If you’re surprised, it can be highly effective,” he says.
Makowsky craved to learn even more. He sought out chess masters from all over the globe, from Russia to South America, and would join early morning Skype sessions with them, he says.
“I picked five grandmasters from every part of the world who specialize in different areas and trained with them for one to two hours every single day,” he says. “Basically, I was able to extract the most meaningful theories.”
Makowsky discerned who was really great at chess but not necessarily a great chess teacher. He sifted out what he felt worked and what didn’t. He also had the self-awareness to scout out his own strengths and weaknesses. He often would overthink things or dwell on them and get locked up mentally. As he went through blitz training (yes, a common football term, but in the chess world it means a rapid-fire games) he figured out how to improve his own focus and ability to move past things that his mind used to get hung up on. He was re-wiring, as he put it. He also met his wife as his life gained more clarity.
“As I went deeper and deeper in chess, I noticed greater results and the correlation of how my life was transforming,” he said. “It’s shockingly effective. I used to dwell and overthink, and now I make really fast decisions. For me, that was really powerful. I thought, if other people can experience this same thing, that could be amazing. I started to focus on, how can this make other people’s lives better?”
Before long, some of those people included quarterbacks.
Makowsky said he had zero exposure to sports until doing a hospitality/restaurant project in 2017 for Peter Guber, the owner of the Golden State Warriors. Makowsky then met with Andre Agassi and Steffi Graf at the Sports Academy in Thousand Oaks, California, where he observed that half of the facility was dedicated to the mental side of sport. “It was so similar to how I train on chess,” he said. Agassi and Graf asked if he would do a pilot program at the facility working with some of the athletes there. Makowsky began training Olympians from a variety of sports, and those athletes started seeing breakthroughs.
Around Father’s Day in 2018, a group of teenage quarterbacks were at the facility to take part in the QB Epic, an off-shoot of Trent Dilfer’s Elite 11 staff. People at the facility told Joey Roberts, Dilfer’s right-hand man, that they had “a chess guy” who excelled at teaching the tactical part of the game. Roberts later noticed a guy in a black shirt vigorously jotting down notes while one of the camp’s coaches gave a presentation on how to build a quarterback highlight.
“Ohhhh! You’re the chess guy,” Roberts realized. Makowsky broke out a big chess board, and soon Roberts became impressed seeing him interact with the kids.
“He’s the definition of objectivity, a blank canvas,” Roberts said. “There’s really no outside biases that go into what he says or sees. In every other environment of the QB space, it kinda becomes, How can I show you how much I know? Or they view these guys though the lens of their own playing days.
“He couldn’t tell you a 7-step drop or name 10 coaches in the NFL, and he could care less about what their 40 time is or how far they can throw a football, but it was also beautiful because he was all about from above the neck, how do they function?”