“Playing chess, it was always strategy,” says Seattle teen Abdiaziz Dolal. “You’re thinking ahead, if it’s a good move or not. Life goes the same way, too.”
Dolal didn’t know anything about chess until third or fourth grade, when his brother took him to Detective Cookie’s Urban Youth Chess Club at the Rainier Beach Library. He’s now a sophomore at Rainier Beach High School, and still plays chess here and there.
“Chess puts my mind at ease,” Dolal says. “If I’m stressing, I got it on my phone, I got it everywhere.”
Seattle Police Detective Denise “Cookie” Bouldin, a youth specialist and liaison officer, started this chess club 12 years ago, with just three kids in Rainier Valley.
“People told me it would never work,” she says. Now she runs a regular club on Tuesdays and Saturdays with a couple of dozen students, and teaches another 270 students at South Shore and Van Asselt schools. The skills her students acquire in chess stand them well in life. “The whole thing is to get them to concentrate and not move so quickly,” says Detective Cookie, a 39-year veteran of the Seattle Police Department. “A lot of times, the kids have a habit, they see something and they go for it. They gotta learn it could be a setup. Make the best move, not the quickest move.
“If you are quick to make a decision, you could lose your queen. In the real community, if you’re quick to be lured into something, to steal; if you’re too quick to do those, there’s going to be consequences. You might end up losing your life or going to jail.”
Dolal credits Detective Cookie with keeping him out of trouble. Growing up, she’d buy him food, pick him up, ask him how his day was, help him with homework. “She kind of raised me and my brother,” Dolal says. “She took care of us.”
Sound like a regular cop? She’s not. For starters, everyone knows her by her nickname; it’s even embroidered on her police uniform: “D. Cookie Bouldin.” (As a little girl, she had a fondness for cookies, especially oatmeal raisin.) Det. Cookie is the kind of cop who’ll stop to tickle a baby or shoot the breeze with some teens. Last week, Dolal ran into her at Domino’s, where she was handing out sticker badges to little kids. “She’s always in a good mood,” Dolal says.
The first three years she ran the chess club, Detective Cookie didn’t know how to play. She’d tried learning the game when she was 13, but hated it. “I just got frustrated,” she says. “Figured I wasn’t smart enough to play chess.”
So every time she sat down to a game at her chess club, she’d mimic her opponent’s moves. And she always lost. One day, she overheard a 7-year-old tell another kid, “Don’t worry, you’re going to win if you play Detective Cookie.” That lit a fire in her to improve her chess game.
Volunteer coach Larry Greenawalt lays out the principles of chess: The battle is at the center of the board, not the sides. Players who only move the side pieces will lose. In the opening 10 to 12 moves, players develop the pieces in order to attack their opponents’ weak points. The object is to capture the other player’s king. Don’t know a rook from a bishop? That’s OK: Greenawalt and other chess instructors can help.
Most Saturdays, the Cheng brothers play chess after their swim lesson at the Rainier Beach Community Center. Howard, 12, and Edward, 11, have gotten so good in the past year they can beat adults. Even their little sister Selina, 6, has picked up chess and can now set up the board by herself.
Playing chess has boosted academics for the Cheng kids, says mom May Cheng. It’s helped them focus, use critical thinking, formulate strategies — and it’s given them a safe place to go.
Detective Cookie was raised in the Chicago projects, where outside her family’s apartment door were people trying to get her to use drugs, sell drugs, get into prostitution. She had parents who kept her safe and were good role models.
Detective Cookie’s sitting a few seats over, dressed in her uniform, playing one of her regulars. Even though she’s absorbed in her game, she checks in with everyone who comes by. The atmosphere is casual, with kids popping in for a quick game or just saying hi. Chess might seem exclusively for the brainy set, but the way Det. Cookie runs the chess club, it’s a game everyone can enjoy.
“Chess takes kids out of their environment,” she says. “They sort of free their mind. Their only focus is on the chessboard. They can be children.”
If you go: Detective Cookie’s chess club meets 3 to 5 pm on Tuesdays at the Rainier Beach Library, and noon to 2 pm Saturdays at the Rainier Beach Community Center. Open to everyone 7 years and older. No experience necessary.
For more information: Det. Cookie Chess Club Facebook page:
To donate: The Seattle Parks Foundation is raising money to build a chess park in Det. Cookie’s honor.