Seth Makowsky takes quarterbacks’ thinking from checkers to chess

Seth Makowsky takes quarterbacks’ thinking from checkers to chess
By Bruce Feldman, published on the The Athletic on June 29, 2020
Seth Makowsky never had any interest in football. He never even watched a game. A chess coach, Makowsky was 41 the first time the sport ever really caught his eye.
It was Feb. 4, 2018, and Makowsky had friends were over his Beverly Hills home watching Super Bowl LII between the Eagles and the Patriots. He kept noticing how one of the announcers, NBC analyst Cris Collinsworth, dropped what seemed like a half-dozen chess references over the course of the three-hour plus broadcast. Makowsky, who had been using principles he’d learned from chess to help his Poison Pawn business coaching and consulting clients boost their bottom lines, was suddenly intrigued.
“It just became clear to me that people saw it as just a metaphor for football, but it’s really more than that,” Makowsky said. “It’s real. It became so profound to me that it prompted me to go deeper and deeper.”

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?”

Makowsky leads Deshaun Watson through an on-field drill as Kyle Allen, Deshone Kizer and others observe. (Courtesy Seth Makowsky)

At QB Epic, coach Quincy Avery was coaching a footwork drill in the same sandpit where Makowsky was running a mind training drill that used a life-sized chess board. Few if any of the QBs understood the rules of chess or knew the values of every piece, but Avery was fascinated by the way Makowsky communicated to the kids about how disciplined they had to be in every direction.

“I saw the correlation almost immediately,” Avery said. “It’s just like playing quarterback, where you can make one mental error and the game is over.”

Avery became such a believer in Makowsky that he asked him to help train a group of college quarterbacks the next month. Among them: Haskins, JMU’s Ben DiNucci, Miami’s Jarren Williams and Florida’s Emory Jones.

He also connected him with another of his protégés, Deshaun Watson, who had rented an Air BnB in Studio City to train in Southern California. Makowsky’s first meeting with Watson was scheduled for 45 minutes, but Watson was so engaged, he pushed back dinner plans. Their session lasted three hours. Makowsky walked Watson through chess strategies, and Watson began drawing up football plays explaining what he looks for in protections, coverages and the weak spot in a defense.

“He was totally locked in,” Makowsky said. “When we were training, that was the only thing that mattered. He was taking aggressive notes. I’d explain a chess move, how there are different openings and different offenses and defenses, and how if you keep playing the same person over and over, they know how you tend to move. The key is we want to disguise how we operate. We want them to be uncomfortable, and he was explaining that in football, defenses operate the same way.”

Watson set up another session for the next day, and Makowsky brought his chess board out to the field to incorporate with the Texans quarterback’s workout.

“We’re also gonna check down each time and scan from left to right,” Makowsky told Watson. “ ‘Where am I vulnerable? I’m not vulnerable, so what can I attack?’ We’re looking to just keep attacking the weak spot. And this is where we’ve got to make you like a machine, so you don’t ever make a blunder and you don’t ever make a mistake.

“What if I do this, and attack your bishop?”

“If you attack my bishop, I’m gonna attack you,” Watson said with a wry grin, “and take the queen.”

The young quarterback immediately had picked up that they were speaking the same language through the prism of problem solving and decision-making.

Makowsky told Watson, “When I’m playing, I try and show different things each time because eventually (the opponent) gets used to it, but then what happens when all of a sudden something is different? You have to know all of the rules. That way you can break them.”

By the end of that second session, Makowsky said, he and Watson were playing chess without the pieces, solely based on board coordinates. “That usually takes some people months to do,” he said.

Haskins transitioned to the chess training as quickly as any quarterback Makowsky has worked with. On the field, Haskins would simulate the game — “There’s my bishop … There’s my knight. There’s my pawns.” On the chess board, Makowsky put all of his pupils against each other. “Dwayne was actually setting traps for the other guys,” Makowsky said.

That fall, Haskins had a record-setting debut season as a starter at Ohio State, throwing 50 touchdown passes against just eight interceptions.

“(Makowsky) helped tremendously,” Haskins told The Athletic. “Seth does great relating sports to chess as far as the moves on the chess board, how you maneuver, like how each move is calculated. He applies that to real life and sports.”

Haskins downloaded a chess app to his phone for those times when he wants to train but can’t meet with Makowsky, and he says it’s great stimulation for his mind. “Just thinking and thinking ahead, but you’re still staying in the moment at the same time,” he says. “It just makes me process things easier and faster, so it really does help me with football so like I know if a certain coverage happens, I can go here and just be able to make a move without it having happened yet.”

Like Haskins, Watson had a breakout season in 2018, improving his TD-INT ratio with the Houston Texas from 19-8 to 26-9. His completion percentage rose from 62 to 68, and he earned a Pro Bowl invitation.

“I think working with Seth was a great tool for me to learn my way of making smarter decisions, being careful with the decisions I make and being precise with it as far as each move really matters, and before you make every move, calculate all of the pros and cons that go into each move,” Watson told The Athletic. “Once you make that move and you realize all of the pros that go with that decision and you realize all of the things that can attack you as far as playing chess, you can apply that to your career and life in general.”

Watson immediately recognized chess and football — particularly as a quarterback — share a similar perspective. “In chess, you have a checklist before you make each move, just as a quarterback you have a checklist,” he says. “You call the play. You walk up to the line of scrimmage. You make the (middle linebacker) point. You’ve gotta see the safeties. You gotta see the front. Where the pressure is, what the alignment is before you snap the ball, and then once you have the ball, you react.

“It’s the same way with chess. You get up there. You see what they’re doing on the other side of the chess board. You calculate all of the things that are going into it before you make your move.”

This off-season Makowsky spent time in Atlanta with Watson right before the COVID-19 pandemic hit. They continued to sharpen Watson’s thought process, which is something that Makowsky says has been a focus of Avery’s since Makowsky was first brought to meet with the former Clemson star. Avery told Makowsky that Watson can always make the “Superman” plays. Their goal was to train with career longevity in mind, and that meant finding ways for Watson to get better at making the smartest, sharpest decision so that he won’t need to rely on the Superman stuff.

The more Makowsky dug into football, the more he became fascinated with the nuances of the quarterback position and what chess and football reveal about behavior. It added another dimension to his mental training process.

“For me, chess isn’t the thing,” Makowsky said. “It’s applying the chess strategy. I’m strategy and tactics, but also the behavioral stuff. Like, what happens when something goes wrong? What happens when you throw an interception? How do you compartmentalize it? How do you handle success? How do you handle failure?”

Makowsky probes to learn more about a player’s emotional reservoir, like what happens when they get sacked or throw an interception. Watson, he has learned, just snaps his fingers and somehow doesn’t think about it again. But most quarterbacks don’t have that kind of mental discipline. It is a blessing, Makowsky says of Watson’s ability to not wallow in negative moments. “But,” he adds, “it’s a muscle. In order to get better at it, you need to get reps at it. We can get a lot of reps over a chess board, where it doesn’t matter.”

Makowsky is confident in his ability to identify personality types, which helps in his ability to quickly identify the areas a football player wants to improve. “Everyone’s on a range,” he says. “Some people are super impulsive. Some overthink things.”

One quarterback, the first time he sat down to play chess against Makowsky, said as they went back and forth, “I feel like you’ve known me forever.” The chess coach identified that the player was very smart and very responsible, but also that it was taking him a long time to make a decision. Makowsky deduced that he was probably playing to not make a mistake, and he might take a safe move instead of a strong forceful one. Makowsky said he saw a lot of himself in the QB. Since recognizing the quarterback’s tendencies, he and the player’s coaches have seen a lot of growth and have noted that he started playing free and having a lot more fun.

With others, Makowsky has noticed fight or flight responses taking over, with a player’s reaction to the board mirroring how they react on the field. The chess training, he believes, can allow them to get more comfortable, and “not locked up anymore.”

“A lot of times they don’t even know it, but they have that negative self-talk — ‘Oh, I’m so stupid!’ or bad body language,” he says. “I see them doing the exact same behaviors on the field, and that’s where it really matters.”

One of his goals, through awareness and the repetitions from the chess training is to grind that out of them. “So, if you play better when you’re just having fun, why don’t we focus on that,” he says. “Let’s get to that place because if you’re locked up and punishing yourself, it doesn’t make you better, that’s not serving us.”

Makowsky’s chess ability allows him to control the board and put the players in binds. Maybe he pins one of their pieces or creates multiple threats that they can’t defend. Or maybe he creates a threat in one area and leaves an opportunity on the other side of the board to see if they’re overlooking other threats or openings. That can mimic a quarterback going through their progressions. Makowsky’s analogy is like a strength coach putting more weight on them to see how they’ll handle it.

Makowsky’s hope for the quarterbacks is to try and reduce their mental errors to zero. To do that, he says, they need to have a process. And if the QB gets lax in that process and drifts into auto-pilot, that’s where mistakes often happen. Or, for example, maybe a wide receiver has been covered the whole game so the quarterback stops looking that guy’s way, even when the wideout is wide open.

“Every single move is a sign,” Makowsky said. “My goal is for them to be able to pick up on everything — understand the defense; what are they trying to accomplish? You have to really own a play and really understand the theory and be able to explain as opposed to just memorize something. You have to be super efficient with how we think and how we process information.”

Last summer, after helping Avery prep Haskins for the NFL draft, Makowsky was invited to The Opening/Elite 11 in Texas to coach some of the best high school prospects in the country. Former NFL player-turned-scout-turned NFL Network draft analyst Bucky Brooks had never heard of Makowsky until that week. Brooks, who coaches a team at The Opening, didn’t go to the session Makowsky did with his players. But Brooks became interested after watching Avery and George Whitfield, another Elite 11 QB coach, playing a game of chess. He listened to Makowsky talking about the game and the parallels to football, such as how you want your team built strong up the middle. “His teaching skill is really cool,” Brooks said.

Brooks, also a Southern California high school football coach, realized how it’s really easy — and tempting — to overthink everything as a coach. Makowsky got him to think back to simple concepts through two key questions — what are the threats, and how can I attack?

That took Brooks back to his frustrations with his own NFL career as a wide receiver who was converted to cornerback in Green Bay.

“I always wished I could get out of my own head,” he said. “I never allowed myself to go make plays. I’m analytical by nature and a bit of a perfectionist. When you punish yourself for making a mistake, you compound it. You keep beating yourself up for it. Rather than move on, then that one bad play becomes a series of bad plays.

“In chess, you’re always onto the next thing. I think what Seth does with a player is he allows them to find a way to get to the next play. It’s hard to get them to stay in the moment, but chess requires you to lock in just on that one move. He was able to teach me while putting me under pressure. He made me obsessive about chess. I play it on the phone all of the time. To me, it’s a way to relax and focus in the moment.”

Seth Makowsky and Deshaun Watson, with Quincy Avery (center), went long into the night when they first met to explore the connection between chess and football.
Makowsky and Watson, with Avery (center), went long into the night when they first met to explore the connection between chess and football. (Courtesy Seth Makowsky)

One of the quarterbacks on Brooks’ 7-on-7 team at The Opening was an unheralded, uncommitted prospect named C.J. Stroud. A Southern California native, Stroud sought out Makowsky after the QBs were introduced to the chess coach even after some of his peers sounded skeptical and teased him about asking him so many questions.

“Will you train me after this? Stroud asked. Stroud met with Makowsky from 10 p.m. to midnight for a couple of nights. They trained on having a plan and a process, working through how all of the pieces and players work together in a complex environment, and seeing the entire board.

“It was kind of a mind-blowing experience for a lot of these kids,” Brooks said. “For C.J., it allowed him to come to the line and have a check off process. It gave him a way to organize his thoughts in the moment, without making it bigger than it is. And when it clicked, he was all in. He ignored all the white noise of the other kids laughing.
You could just see that it unlocked him.”

Brooks’ team won the tournament’s championship by playing one defense the entire time — something he took from Makowsky.

“Literally, that thought process transformed everything,” Brooks said. “I told the players, don’t overthink it. Just execute. Just keep it simple. Always be on the attack.”

Stroud completed around 80 percent of his passes for the event and won MVP honors. His recruiting stock skyrocketed. He later signed with Ohio State.

Even though a chess board is displayed prominently outside UCLA coach Chip Kelly’s office, Makowsky said the team’s bond with chess happened organically, with players eagerly gravitating toward and embracing the game. And many Bruins players gush about Makowsky’s impact on their development. Quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson spent two and a half hours with Makowsky on this first day at UCLA. Makowsky’s warp-speed games with Thompson-Robinson can get so intense, the young QB works up a sweat.

“For me, five seconds is like forever, which is why I train these guys in that way,” Makowsky says. “I train the brain like a muscle. Some guys want to have all the time to think about something. So when I put them in that situation, they’re sweating. It’s intense for them. They can’t overanalyze things too long. So I’m getting them be able to process quickly. Just doing the two-minute chess, it starts re-wiring them to know you’ve got to be okay with uncertainty. Understand that you’ve got to be able to move quickly, and if something goes wrong with fast, recover, recover, recover. And I’ve built that muscle up to the point where they start rewiring how they process.”

Makowsky would typically come to the Bruins facility Tuesday mornings and he might be there until 8 at night depending on which players sought him out. Former UCLA cornerback Darnay Holmes took a big interest.

A perfectionist, Holmes used to punish himself if he made a mistake. It might have been a technical mistake that only he knew he made, but he and Makowsky made a point of not emotionally letting it impact the next play. Their focus was getting him to always make forceful moves. That carryover onto the field meant Holmes playing more aggressively and being more comfortable pressing the receiver more. Holmes’ improvement was reflective in a strong showing at the 2020 Senior Bowl, and he was drafted in the fourth round by the Giants in April. Jim Nagy, the executive director of the Senior Bowl, said he saw a “huge difference” and improvement in Holmes’ play in Mobile compared to his performance in his final season at UCLA.

In just his second full year of working with football players, Makowsky’s client list now includes former Alabama and Oklahoma star Jalen Hurts, whom he trained for the NFL Draft; Penn State starting QB Sean Clifford, who reached out to Makowsky this off-season for regular Zoom sessions; Ohio State star Justin Fields and Jacksonville Jaguars QB Joshua Dobbs. Makowsky started training Dobbs in March, and they get together every Wednesday over Zoom.

“The biggest thing he’s teaching is that decision-making process because as a quarterback every single decision you make affects the next one,” said Dobbs, who added that he was excited for OTAs to see how the chess training has helped with his installing plays and learning a new system.

But Makowsky has kept a low-profile when it comes to talking about his expanding footprint in the QB space, a place often teeming with folks not shy about touting their wares. He is cautious and doesn’t want the chess connection to football to seem like some kind of fad, he says. He is proud, though, that many of these up-and-coming quarterbacks are posting pictures of themselves playing chess on Instagram.

“This is a game that has been around for 1,500 years,” he said. “There’s ancient wisdom in this game. People are just wired to it. It’s timeless. But I want to bring it into a new era. It is cool. Little kids are playing chess.”

Roberts, who worked in personnel for the Alliance of American Football and is now the Elite 11’s director of scouting, is wowed not just by how far Makowsky has gone in the football world in such a short time but also by him establishing his vision of creating a bigger stage for the game of chess.

“When I met him he made it understood he wanted to learn more about football, but more importantly, he made it known that he wants the future generations to embrace the educational benefits of chess,” Roberts said. “Typically, if quarterbacks do something in their community, others will follow. If others follow their QB into playing chess, rather than other day-to-day options, that’s a victory for everyone.”

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