Diary a Chess Grinder By Neal Bruce

I think you can replace Chess with Guitar and the ideas in this blog by a noted adult chess improver apply just as well. I picked this up from my brother’s latest vlog on adult chess improvement, my guitar playing is far superior to my chess playing … let’s you know just what kind of chess player I am … was.

Question: What is a chess grinder?

Answer: A person that studies chess several times per week, preferably every day:

  • More focused on the journey than the destination
  • Understands that life is mostly about plateaus and learns to love those plateaus
  • What George Leonard artfully describes in his book, Mastery, The Keys to Success and Long-Term Fulfillment, as being on the Master’s Journey

Q: What are the other journey’s beside the Master’s Journey?

A: Other approaches that George Leonard describes include the Dabbler, the Obsessive, and the Hacker:

  • The Dabbler starts with enormous enthusiasm, but his excitement wanes dramatically after confronting his first plateau.
  • The Obsessive buys every chess book and online resource he can find. “It’s all about my rating. This is the clearest measure of improvement.” He pushes hard even in the face of adversity, but often forms a love-hate relationship with chess. When the Obsessive crashes, he often crashes very hard.
  • The Hacker has a different approach. He is fine with being on the plateau indefinitely and doesn’t mind skipping stages essential for mastery. He’s fine playing blitz games with other Hackers. He probably never had the chess gene anyway.

Q: None of those three approaches sound very good. How does one embrace the master’s journey?

A: When progress seems to stop then say, “Good. I’m on another plateau. I just need to keep practicing and sooner or later, I will see signals of progress.”

Q: That sounds difficult. Why did you become a chess grinder?

A: I started because I did not want to be a Hacker any longer. I knew that I needed to replace my rotten chess foundation with a solid foundation. I also recognized that it will take me years to build this solid foundation. Therefore, I needed to make chess study a daily habit.

Q: How did you make chess study a habit?

A: First, I decided that I am no longer “trying to get better at chess”. Instead, I decided that I am a chess player, and chess players obviously study chess every day. Identity is one of our most powerful tools. Second, I decided to do at least a small amount of chess work every day. It might be to solve 1 puzzle, or read 1 page of a chess book. Even if I did the minimum, I would still feel good about my chess study. Basically, I moved chess study from the Decision Zone to the Habit Zone.

Q: What is the difference between the Decision Zone and Habit Zone?

A: The Decision zone is a conscious effort to do things. It involves motivation, willpower, and rewards. The Habit zone is an unconscious effort. It’s something you just do. I don’t debate whether or not to do some chess study anymore. That would be exhausting. I just do it because it’s what I do. 40-50% of what we do each day is habitual. The key is to put chess study into the habitual part of your life.

Q: What are the keys to building a daily chess study habit?

A: There are 8 important steps:

  1. Anchor the habit to an existing habit. After I get back from my daily walk, I go into my office and study chess. I also have a calendar event on my phone that alerts me as a backup plan.
  2. Make it easy. I have my puzzles and chess book and chess board in arms reach from my desk at all times.
  3. Be happy with a small amount of daily work. Tiny habits are the start of bigger habits. Consistency is more important than volume. I started with 5 puzzles per day, now I can do 200. However, if I do only 5 puzzles, I’m still happy with my daily effort. I may want to read 15 pages of a chess book today, but if I only read 1 page, I’m still happy.
  4. Be totally focused and present while training. Ten minutes of deliberate practice is worth more than one hour of distracted practice.
  5. Create a celebration ritual after each study session. I post interesting puzzles on Twitter as a reward.
  6. Create social accountability. If I tell 1,000 people that I will read 12 chess books this year, I become very motivated to achieve that goal.
  7. Track your progress. Every day I track my training actions and track longer term achievements (e.g. total number of master games studied) in a spreadsheet.
  8. Realize that you will occasionally miss a day. Forgive yourself and do at least one chess related activity the next day. The cumulative effects of regular chess training is like compounding interest and will eventually show up in your games.

Q: Sounds like you know a lot about habit formation, which books do you recommend?

A: Mastery, The Keys to Success and Long-Term Fulfillment, Tiny Habits, Atomic Habits, Mindset, the New Psychology of Success, and Grit, the Power of Passion and Perseverance.

Q: How do you keep the daily grind interesting?

A: Several things to keep chess grinding interesting:

  • listen to music while I study. This helps keep me energized and focused.
  • time myself every time I study tactics. This keeps me focused and makes it a bit of a game.
  • created a chess book championship series to keep chess book study fun and interesting. If you start a book that you dislike, feel free to change books. The goal is to use materials that you believe are useful on your master’s journey.

Q: Any other thoughts about chess grinding?

A: Look for different types of signals of progress, not just rating growth. If you work hard every day on your current plateau, sooner or later, you will see progress. In the meantime, keep grinding

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That’s very interesting, in essence I think you could apply most of it towards learning to play guitar in fact I suppose it could be applied to anything that you want to learn. At the end of the day the real thing about learning is the passion and desire to do so coupled with the endurance and tenacity needed to accomplish it.

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I think this very last nugget may be my favorite. As you said, almost every word could easily apply to guitar, or as Darrell said, anything you want to learn. The key seems to be awareness of which approach suits your personality and goals. I guess no one wants to be the Dabbler. The Obsessive might be fine for some people. I don’t really see anything wrong with the Hacker if you are happy with the plateau that you have reached and it makes you happy. The Master’s journey requires very conscious choice and commitment. Not the journey for everyone, to be sure.

Thanks for posting this, it is a lot of food for thought and the way it is presented is very interesting.

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I like the general idea of the Master’s Journey, and many of the steps line up with Justin’s teaching as well. I’m not crazy about the term ‘grinder’ though, to me it makes it sound like a tough slog of a journey.

This part I really like. I recall a discussion or two on the old Forum about ‘when will you feel you’re a guitar player’, is there a particular song you’re targeting and you think when you can play that you can call yourself a guitar player, etc. I’ve been thinking about that lately in terms of 1 song that I doubt I will ever be able to play, but I’d really like to be able to play, Canon Rock. It’s just too fast and I’m not even interested in being a shredder. So I think with this post I will finally just decide that I am a guitar player. I agree that identity is a very powerful force.

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Yeah, I have thought about this too. I have decided that I am a guitar player. Most of the people in my life would probably say “yeah, Dave is learning to play the guitar” or even “Dave tries to play the guitar,” and that’s fine. As for me, I say I am a guitar player. I’m not particularly skilled at this point (I’m between Grade 1 and Grade 2), and I struggle with rhythm and smooth chord changes and I can’t really play melodies worth a damn, but I am still a guitar player. Doesn’t matter what anyone else says.

Also, I am a grinder. I will grind along, steady and surely, and by continuing to grind along I will improve. I don’t consider the term derogatory at all - it describes someone who is willing to do the hard work to accomplish a goal. Not necessarily flashy or glamorous, but determined and persistent.

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Me too :slight_smile:

I’m still not sold on the word ‘grinder’ though!

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@DarrellW @Dave911 @mari

Glad you found some value in the article. Like so many things shared in the Community, if just one person finds some value then it was worth the time (however short) to post. So appreciate your taking the trouble to reply and share some thoughts.

I had mixed feelings about ‘grinder’. I often refer to myself as learning tortoise style, slow and steady, with a nod to Aesop’s Hare and the Tortoise. I think depending on one’s own word associations ‘grinder’ could have some ‘negative’ nuances.

Irrespective, I think it is the mindset that remains key.

I now consider myself a guitar player. I was only able to own it, with the caveat that I’m not anywhere near what I’d call a highly proficient, perhaps not yet even mediocre, guitar player, sometime after some friends and family challenged my not owning it.

And Mari, from where I am you are without a doubt a guitar player, at a play-grade that I aspire to reach, which is not to say you too may not yet consider yourself to be even mediocre :grin: But your Fire and Ice recording could not be produced by somebody who is not a guitar player, as far as I am concerned.

And I did enjoy the way Bruce linked that to sense of identity.

I am a musician. Not a professional musician. Not a musician with self-published albums for the world to hear. But a musician none the less, loving the adventure, fulfilled by my own sense of achievement (irrespective of the ‘level’ of achievement), affirmed by feedback from relative strangers.

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In a nutshell David, it’s all about level of achievement, we are all musicians but of different levels - who cares what level we’re at it doesn’t really matter!

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Yes, this is exactly the image I had in mind when thinking about the term “grinder” in this context. In fact, I almost included the tortoise.

While I am comfortable claiming to be a guitar player, though not a particularly “good” one yet, I don’t feel like a musician. It’s not something that I have even thought of before. I will have to consider that. Why am I not a musician? How can I claim to be a guitarist, but not a musician? What would it take for me to be a musician? Is it important to me? Does this question change my goals and attitude towards practice and choices I need to make on my journey?

You’ve triggered a line of thought that I had not at all anticipated. I don’t think I’m ready to dive in too deep with it just yet, but it will simmer in the background going forward and I will keep coming back to it regularly.

Maybe “guitar player” vs “musician” is similar to “hacker” vs “master” in my mind. I’m not really sure of that, though. The term “hacker” is much more troublesome to me than “grinder.”

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Thanks David. Everything is relative, and often situational. I’m thrilled to be able to play Fire and Rain, and most days I’m quite happy with my guitar playing, and calling myself a guitar player. My major scale soloing is not going very well though. And yesterday after practicing I was thinking I should post a ‘medley’ of 2 songs/parts of songs I am currently massacring (Parisienne Walkways, and the solo in Let it Be - which I thought I had learned okay a couple of years ago!). So relative - I can play Fire & Rain but not Parisienne Walkways - and situational - what the bleep happened on Let it Be?? lol

I may still post a Medley of Massacres …

I wasn’t keen on that word either, ‘grinder’ just bugged me more!

Good. You play the guitar. That makes you a player.

Why not? You are a musician if you make music that moves you (makes you happy/sad/excited etc.) That can be your own or someone else’s, a song, a chord… I’d be surprised if you have not experienced joy at the music you are able to create with your guitar. (You seem too enthusiastic about it not to :wink:)

There is another category you could add here and that is performer
You may well have started this at home. When you start recording yourself and sharing here that can be just as rewarding as the others.
We are all our own judges as to where we are on our learning journey, as well as where we want to get to (and that often fluctuates wildly).
Being ‘accomplished’ in any of the above- well, that does require an outside opinion :wink:
I currently regard myself as a good performer, a reasonably good musician and an ok guitarist.
(I’ll probably delete this post after the next open mic.)

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There’s an understatement!! :smiley:

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:rofl: if being able to play the solos, even the chord progressions with the various bass notes, was a yardstick for being a guitar-player then I suspect there are many, many professional performing and recording artists who are not guitar players.

I’m just having a laugh, of course it is all relative.

I can go along with that and far more likely to add some bold accents after the next open mic :grin:

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