Massachusetts Go Association: Reflections on Twenty Years

by Skip Ascheim (from the American Go Journal, Fall 1998)


In the age of Internet Go, a 24-hour club is a given. But in Boston the idea took hold twenty years ago, when we established one of the only round-the-clock Go clubs in America. I was an addict from the moment I learned to play, and even after the local club -- the Massachusetts Go Association -- started meeting twice a week, I still wasn't getting enough and found myself stealing out in the middle of the night, magnetic travel set in hand, to haunt the shadowy precincts of the all-night coffee shop at the MIT student center in search of other bleary-eyed devotees. So when I became president of the MGA, in 1975, my top goal was to establish a full-time Go center -- a dream that was realized in March of 1978, thanks largely to the generosity of Elizabeth Bohlen, an avid player who owned a small commercial building in Central Square, Cambridge, and provided quarters to the MGA at sub-market rates.

The novelty of a permanent space attracted sixty-two members that first year -- far more than had ever shown up for a typical weekly meeting. Over the past 20 years, 375 people have been members of the MGA; the current membership hovers around 80, with a healthy 75% renewal rate from year to year. At first, members came every night of the week, but eventually the group lapsed into old habits and began congregating on the traditional playing nights: Tuesdays and Fridays. Sundays were added, and we've tried repeatedly to expand our activities into the rest of the week, but except for short-lived phenomena like classes we've been unsuccessful: members need a high degree of assurance of a critical mass of other players.

The transition to permanent facilities had both predictable and unexpected consequences. Most obviously, we no longer had to haul the equipment out each meeting and store it away afterwards. We collected an impressive library of books and periodicals in Japanese, Chinese, Korean, and English. Some folks who lived or worked in the Boston-Cambridge area took to dropping in at lunch time with takeout food to study joseki or pore over the games of Ishida and Rin Kai Ho. But as useful as it was to the individual member with an hour to spare, the club was even more effective as the incubator of a new community.

While the MGA's previous location -- an open cafe area in Harvard's Science Center -- had the advantage of public visibility, it also inhibited social interaction. How much so was not apparent until we moved. Once the members found themselves in a private space, the noise level increased dramatically, as players argued about approach moves and invasions, and as they just talked and got to know each other as people. Classes at all levels were instituted. Bruce Wilcox taught Instant Go. We hosted visiting professionals and discovered the joy -- and profit -- of tournaments. The club became a society, with all the attendant amity and friction.

At one point, an enterprising and statistically minded member decided to establish a rating system based on game results -- much like the current AGA system. Players would watch their ratings tick up or down by tenths of a rank, and more than a few became preoccupied with the weekly fluctuations. Competitiveness intensified, and the atmosphere steadily soured until the group decided to de-emphasize the rating system by moving its display from the main bulletin board to the library room, where it soon fell into disuse.

The community feeling that developed over ten years in Central Square was instrumental in our 1988 move to Harvard Square, a prime location that tripled our annual expenses to nearly $15,000. We spent six years in Harvard Square, but membership did not expand enough to cover the costs, forcing us to invest ever-increasing amounts of time and energy in fundraising. One member, Ken Fan, who went from beginner to 1-kyu during 1988-89, vividly recalls the meeting "where so many Go players made out checks, sometimes worth $100, on the spur of the moment to keep the club alive. Talk about dedication and loyalty!"

In 1993, we relocated to our present quarters in bustling, affordable Davis Square, Somerville (Cambridge's neighbor to the north). The budget has stabilized around $9,000 a year, raised through a combination of dues, donations, and tournaments. We deliberately keep the dues reasonable ($140 a year, with no additional fees; reduced to $75 for students, seniors, and the unemployed) and rely on contributions from more affluent members to make up the difference. In the past 20 years, members have donated more than $48,000 to the club; we now have 16 Life Members.

Easing the financial burden has released energy in other directions: a monthly beginners night; an email list; fliers, business cards, and bank-window displays for publicity; an expanding library with a lending system; classes and quarterly tournaments. But the greatest enhancement has undoubtedly been the arrival of Chinese professional teacher Huiren Yang. Mr. Yang, 46, emigrated in 1993 at the invitation of the AGA, working at the New York Go Club for a year -- where he won the Ing-sponsored Meijin cup -- before settling in Boston. Mr. Yang's popular monthly lectures and weekly study groups have given the MGA a world-class profile.

Like Go clubs everywhere, the Massachusetts Go Association has seen an Internet-inspired drop-off in attendance. Since competing with the IGS for players is obviously hopeless, we've decided to join up ourselves. Thanks to a very generous donation from a longtime loyalist, we've acquired a computer and will soon be on the 'net. Ironically, this link to cyberspace may turn out to be the long-sought catalyst for expanding the use of the club, since a member will be able to drop in anytime and be assured of a game, even if no one else is there. And if the cyberlink helps to reverse our 'net-caused decline in membership, it will be a newly-classic case of playing on your opponent's best point.

Copyright Skip Ascheim 1998