Agnes Gund is savoring her moment as a chess champion.

Ms. Gund, a former president at the MoMA, recently had the title of “grandmaster” bestowed upon her. She garnered the title after pledging to make a hefty donation to Chess-in-the-Schools, a nonprofit organization that has offered chess lessons in dozens of low-income New York City schools since 1986.

View Full Image

drawn by Noli Novak

Agnes Gund


“It’s the only time I’d ever be called a grandmaster because I certainly wouldn’t get it through playing the game,” said a laughing Ms. Gund, adding that she doesn’t have the patience to play.

Both Ms. Gund and organization officials declined to state the donation’s exact amount. But Marley Kaplan, the group’s president, suggested it was a six-figure number. “We’ve gotten donations that range from one dollar to $400,000,” she said. “It’s safe to say this donation falls in the upper range.”

The donation will help boost the finances of the organization, which has had to cut back on some expenses—from pencils to the chess sets it used to provide—because of the economy.

Ms. Gund, who serves as a board member with Chess-in-the-Schools, said she’s enamored with the program. While she is happy to help provide the students with a challenging game that they can “have for the rest of their lives,” Ms. Gund insisted her favorite part of the program was “College Bound” portion, which helps high schoolers visit and apply to colleges.

“Chess-in-the-Schools offers a privileged education for kids who otherwise wouldn’t have it,” said Ms. Gund, who President Barack Obama recently nominated to be a member of the National Council on the Arts. “In my mind, they have just as much right to have access to it.”

The philanthropist founded a program similar to Chess-in-the-Schools, called Studio in a School, more than 30 years ago. The organization brings visual arts education into more than 120 city schools.

Chess-in-the-Schools will hold its largest tournament of the year Monday, when more than 800 students, ranging from kindergarten to high school, compete at Frederick Douglass Academy in Harlem.

While much of the focus on the program centers on chess, participants say it’s more than just that. “It gave me the motivation and tools I needed to make the leap to college,” program alum Henry Arias, a 24-year-old who now works at a Wall Street bank.

Mr. Arias, who attended DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx before graduating from Wesleyan University in Connecticut, called Chess-in-the-Schools a “key factor” in him pursuing a college degree.

Write to Chris Herring at