Local Go players find a cozy venue at Starbucks

Ding Yining
A Starbucks outlet in Putuo District has become a gathering place for local amateur Go players, prompting calls for more such places, while others argue that it hurts business.
Ding Yining

Shot by Dong Jun. Edited by Dong Jun. Reported by Ding Yining. Subtitles by Ding Yining.

One Starbucks outlet in downtown Shanghai caught many off guard after informal gatherings of local amateur Go players were posted online and went viral.

Every Monday, Thursday, and Saturday afternoon, dozens of amateur Go players congregate to share their board game strategies.

The informal meeting began some years ago when Shanghai amateur Go player Han Jun, who lives close by, discovered a community bakery to organize casual Go sessions with friends and fellow Go players.

The participants formed a WeChat group, and as word spread via social media, others joined in.

Han Jun normally brings over a dozen boards from his home, and when social media posts became popular, there were more than one-third more Go players at the gathering than on regular workdays.

Local Go players find a cozy venue at Starbucks
Dong Jun / SHINE

A Starbucks outlet in Putuo District has become a gathering place for local amateur Go players.

Local Go players find a cozy venue at Starbucks
Dong Jun / SHINE

A group of Go lovers are seen on Monday in the shop.

Around 40 people turned up on Monday, among whom many are students and retirees, and Han said more people, up to 60, can be seen on weekends.

Regardless of their age or occupation, they appear to have an implicit agreement to pursue the simple delight of playing in a relaxed environment. Nobody has to pay a membership fee or make any kind of commitment.

"They don't have any obligation as long as they feel the place and atmosphere are comfortable, and I don't have any mandatory requirements either," he said.

In a popular online video broadcast in early January that attracted 1 million views and over 2,000 comments, many people suggested that coffee shops emulate the habit of having chess-playing sessions to attract board game players.

"Starbucks staff here are largely tolerant, and we have nothing more to ask for, while most of the participants do order some coffee drinks or deserts over the long hours here," he said.

Some argue that the gatherings disrupt the normal business environment and keep non-participants away, and that Go players should limit gatherings to specific salons or professional clubs.

Starbucks did not respond to the issue. But it seems business in this outlet is not quite disturbed as most Go-playing customers had a cup of Starbucks coffee besides their Go boards on Monday, while some non-participants were seen simply buy their drinks and sit quietly in the shop.

Local Go players find a cozy venue at Starbucks
Dong Jun / SHINE

People usually buy a cup of Starbucks coffee when playing Go.

Matching Go players of different levels with one another appears to be quite easy for Han.

Wang, in his 80s, said he was looking for a good location and a counterpart who could match his ability, so he decided to come and try his luck after a friend recommended the coffee shop.

After a brief conversation with Han, he sat at a corner table with a much younger counterpart and started playing right away.

Shanghai retiree surnamed Li, who has been following the Go-playing culture for more than 50 years, said that the group must locate a good site not only in terms of decoration style, correct size, and easy location but also an ideal environment.

The Game of Go symbolizes many characteristics of Chinese civilization, but it also fits nicely with the relaxed and welcoming attitude here at the coffee shop, Li said.

"For many retirees, it's not easy to find a fairly decent place, and a like-minded group is even harder to come by."

Despite widespread public participation and several professional training institutions, there is still significant room for promotion to increase awareness of go among all age groups, he added.

Local Go players find a cozy venue at Starbucks
Dong Jun / SHINE

The group welcomes all go players irrespective of their age or ability. A local retiree in his 80s was spotted playing with a youngster.

Many people point out that it is difficult for Go players of different rankings to match one another; therefore, the face-to-face connection is what motivates many individuals to seek out counterparts, whether they are familiar with one another or not.

Jeff Zhang, a Shanghai office worker in his early 40s, ran into the group while buying coffee here about a year ago.

"I didn't realize there was a Go-playing community just at my doorstep, and I started playing again after a gap of over 10 years," he said.

"There's no limit here for age or your capability; more importantly, it's a satisfactory place for many to feel the integration of Go-playing culture and enjoying coffee," he said.

Han said that this has not changed his original objective of simply collecting like-minded people to enjoy playing Go, with no ambitions to grow or relocate the loose organization.

Local Go players find a cozy venue at Starbucks
Dong Jun / SHINE

Go players agree to play for fun in a relaxed atmosphere.

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