Seattle Police Detective Denise “Cookie” Bouldin believes kids can succeed when they’re given a chance and the right tools. And for her, one of those tools is the game of chess.
For about 12 years now she’s been hosting a free drop-in chess club in South Seattle.
It started when she tried to set up a basketball game for a group of her kids, and they asked her to set up a chess tournament instead.
KUOW's Jamala Henderson spoke with Bouldin in 2011. Below Bouldin describes how learning to play chess herself changed the way she taught her kids:
As a kid I was pretty much brainwashed that chess was for smart people and that I wasn't smart enough for chess.
I never saw a black person play in chess. I never saw an African-American as a kid playing chess. Never. I wasn't around people who were playing chess. I didn't see it on television.
And whenever I would see someone playing chess it was someone white or someone that looks like they probably was a bookworm and they were super smart, and I just didn't see myself as being super smart.
And then, someone tried to teach me chess. They would just put all the pieces on the board and was just showing me, OK this is what this piece does. And I got frustrated because I forgot what this does.
And it got to the point where I said, 'You know what? I hate this game. I hate it hate it hate it don't ever want to play it again.'
When we first started the chess club, I would ask the kids who didn’t know how to play, why don't you play chess? I said be honest.
One kid who raised his hand said, 'I'm not smart enough to play chess.'
Another kid raised his hand said 'I don't play because chess is for smart people.'
Another kid raised his hand and said ‘chess is for nerds’.
You know — little stuff like that. And then I realized the answers these kids gave were the same answers I gave of why I didn't play chess — the same reason.
I was a good 'set the chess board up' person and making sure that we had a chess board and that the kids came.
But kids would want to play chess with me. So I would sit down and I would just mimic their moves. Whenever they moved, I would just move the pieces. I had no clue as to why or for what purpose.
Then this one kid — he was either four or five years old — he whispered over to the other kids and said, ‘Don't worry, you're going to beat her. You can win easily with Officer Cookie!'
And I'm like, 'Oh no he didn't! No he did not say that!' All I could do was laugh, but he was so right.
I was sharing with the American Foundation for Chess that I didn't know how to play chess, and that my mind was just not made for chess. That's why I hire somebody to teach chess. And so the American Foundation for Chess said, 'Officer Cookie, come to one of our trainings, and you will be playing chess in 30 minutes or less.' So I went.
And 30 minutes, I think it might even have been 20 minutes, I was playing chess and I was loving it. I could not get enough of it. I had brought a friend with me so they can learn at the same time that I was learning, so I had that person to play with.
And I wanted to play chess, day in night.
I use the chess board to teach the kids anti-violence. I use a chess board to teach how important it is to make good choices. Every choice you make is going to have consequences.
I even have kids saying ‘Detective Cookie you know, chess is like real life.' And when a kid tells me that I know I'm getting through to them.
'You’ve got to be careful of what you do because there are consequences. You can get killed out on the street just as well as your king can get check mate.'