Koby Portes was driving through Rainier Beach recently when he looked out the window and saw something that blew his mind.
A new park dedicated to chess, his personal obsession.
“I have to go here!” he told his girlfriend, almost leaping out of the car.
Detective Cookie Chess Park, named for a Seattle police detective who started a chess club for kids in the South End years ago, opened last month.
Portes, 23, showed up to play last week. He lives nearby.
“I love chess,” he said, placing his own silver and gold chess set on a table. “To win the game, you use your mind and only your mind.”
Built on a wedge of previously unused land between Rainier Avenue South and South Barton Place, near the Rainier Beach public library, the park has 12 stone tables with green-and-white chess boards. Metal sculptures shaped like king and queen chess pieces tower above a giant chess board made with pavement tiles. The park is protected by purple bollards that resemble pawns.
You have to bring your own chess pieces to play with, unless Detective Denise “Cookie” Bouldin happens to be there. She brings extra.
“Just set up a board,” she urged. “Somebody is going to play chess with you.”
Best known as “Detective Cookie,” Bouldin remembers more than 15 years ago when some Rainier Beach kids asked her to organize a chess tournament, rather than yet another basketball game. They didn’t know how to play chess and neither did she, so she hired an instructor. As word spread, more kids showed up. That’s how the Detective Cookie Chess Club was born.
Now the club welcomes parents, grandparents and other adults along with the kids. Every Saturday at the Rainier Beach Community Center, 20 to 60 people come together to play. They leave their worries at the door because the club is a safe space, said Bouldin, who uses chess to teach the kids about choices, consequences and how to avoid dangerous situations.
“Making good decisions and making bad decisions,” she said, adding, “It’s not all about winning. That big ‘L’ isn’t for ‘loser.’ It’s for ‘learning.’”
Bouldin, a community outreach officer who does much of her chess work on her own time, has taught thousands of kids, she said. “She’s a force,” said Amy Ephrem, whose sons Yabi, 12, and Keli, 9, visited the park last week.
Boosters pitched the park as a way to honor Bouldin, beautify an intersection and bring neighbors of diverse ages and backgrounds together.
“Chess is something that doesn’t require a common language,” said Carol Chin, whose daughter, Lucy, 10, likes to “outsmart people” when she plays.
“You only need two words: check and checkmate,” added Randy Paul Myer, a longtime member of Seattle’s outdoor chess scene who also plays at Occidental Park in Pioneer Square.
Years in the making, the new park cost about $400,000, said Erin Lau, a landscape architect who led the volunteer committee. Most of the cost was covered by Seattle’s transportation department; the site was located in the department’s right of way. The project also received money from other city departments, the county and private donors, Lau said.
Most tables were occupied on a sunny afternoon last week, some by kids from the club and others by strangers. Three high school students stopped by. Marlena Parks brought her son, Bijan, 8, a recent convert to the game.
“I get out the pompoms anytime he shows an interest in anything positive,” Parks said, watching Bijan take on the park’s namesake.
“He’s got my queen! This young man has learned chess so quickly,” exclaimed Bouldin, who delivered a speech at the park when it opened.
The next morning, she recalled, “I jumped out of bed, grabbed my phone and looked at my pictures” to make sure the celebration hadn’t been a dream.
Fortunately, “This is real,” Bouldin said, beaming as she gazed around the park. “People are here, coming to play chess. I don’t even know some of them, but they’re here. This is their park. This is exactly what I wanted.”