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    Go Crazy: Shanghai’s Amateur Players Flock to Starbucks

    A downtown branch of the U.S. coffeehouse has become a “stronghold” for fans of the ancient Chinese board game Go.
    Feb 06, 2024#Shanghai#sports

    It’s a cold Thursday afternoon in late January and the second floor of the Starbucks coffee shop on Shanghai’s Zhongtan Road, Putuo District, is filled with small groups of people pensively huddled around square tables covered in black and white stones.

    This is the place to be for fans of Go, the strategy board game that has endured in China for some 2,500 years. About 30 amateur players have made the trip this afternoon, creating a cozy but quiet atmosphere.

    This particular branch of the U.S. coffee chain has become a “stronghold” for Shanghai’s growing army of Go fans. Han Jun, one of the earliest participants, explains that these gatherings are self-organized. At first, there was only a small WeChat group, but as word began to spread on other social media channels, the number of members swelled to close to 400.

    The large table in the center of the second floor is entirely taken up with Go players. Many of them will play all afternoon, a cup of hot tea or coffee at their side. Han says the employees at Starbucks are largely tolerant of the group as long as they keep the noise down and order something.

    As a veteran member of the group, Han is familiar with each player’s level of ability, favorite moves, and even their work background. Among them are Go coaches, part-time violinists, stockbrokers, and lawyers, with a mix of young people and senior citizens.

    Every Monday, Thursday, and Saturday, from 1:30 p.m. onwards, amateur Go players will begin to congregate here to test their strategies. Han says he has 17 Go sets, and will decide how many to bring to the coffeehouse depending on the number of people who have signed up in the WeChat group. When more people than expected show up, he simply returns to his home nearby to fetch more sets.

    Many players first learned about the informal Starbucks gatherings through Han. The arrangement is entirely voluntary — no membership is required. Whenever Han sees someone walk in, he always takes the initiative to go up to them and make small talk, asking if they are Go fans. “By watching just one game, I’m able to determine a player’s level,” he says.

    The meetups started about seven years ago. Originally, Han was part of a small group of about 30 Go players who would meet for head-to-head matches at a bakery next door to the Starbucks on Zhongtan Road. As the business primarily catered to take-out orders, there were often many empty tables, and the owner even allowed Han to store his Go sets there.

    When the bakery closed, the group simply moved to Starbucks. However, as more people have joined in, the atmosphere on the second floor can get clamorous at times. Han says that the store manager will sometimes come to talk with him about the noise, as his superiors are aware of the activity, causing no small amount of stress. The staff at the coffeehouse declined to comment.

    Han once made a point of observing whether players purchased anything from the store and noted that more than half of them did order food or drinks, although that left about a dozen people who didn’t. Han says he always orders a cup of tea and estimates he spends up to 400 yuan ($56) a month in the store.

    A going concern

    China is home to about 60 million Go players, including roughly 100,000 practitioners working at 17,000 training centers and part of 3,000 industry associations, according to data from the China Go Association (CGA). Most are based in cities, with Shanghai, Beijing, Xi’an, Shenzhen, and Guangzhou ranked in order as the top five bases by 101 Chess, an online community for Go fans.

    The popularity of Go is booming, especially among young people, with the CGA estimating that at least 3 million are currently learning the ancient game. At a national tournament held last year in Quzhou, Zhejiang province, 545 players aged under 18 competed for a chance to earn a professional certification, with just 30 up for grabs. The adult category saw 68 entrants vie for six winning places. Only those with the advanced amateur ranking of 5-dan are eligible to enter the contest. (Amateur ranks generally go up to 7-dan, while professionals go up to 9.)

    Online Go platforms have also experienced rapid development in recent years. Fox Go, which is operated by WeChat’s parent company Tencent, is one of the most popular thanks to its high-tech functions such as photo-based scoring and intelligent match records. According to the CGA, since February 2022, over 360 million individuals have participated in online Go matches across all platforms, with a monthly active user base of 12 million.

    For retirees, the outdoor seating areas of teahouses and community centers remain prime locations for meeting Go partners. “We arrange community Go competitions every quarter and on weekends,” says an event organizer at a community center in Putuo. “We also invite Go masters here to help amateur players improve their skills through matches. We hope that everyone can have fun with Go, regardless of their rank.”

    People have also found modern ways of finding Go partners. In the dedicated Go community on Chinese social network platform Douban, threads aimed at matching playing partners are updated daily, either for appointed games on Fox Go or in person at teahouses. The Go Map feature available via 101 Chess also offers extensive information on venues, including Go clubs and training academies.

    With enthusiasm for this ancient game only getting stronger, Go looks set to thrive in the 21st century and beyond.

    Reported by Deng Lingwei and Wu Huiyuan.

    A version of this article first appeared in The Paper. It has been translated and edited for brevity and clarity, and republished here with permission.

    Translator: Eunice Ouyang; contributions: Chen Yue; editors: Xue Ni and Hao Qibao.

    (Header image: Go players at a Starbucks branch in Shanghai, Feb. 3, 2024. Wu Huiyuan/Sixth Tone)