The Mysterious Disappearance of Peter Winston

How does one of the world’s top chess prodigies just vanish from a New York street?

NO ONE CAN SAY WHAT BREEDS a genius, but Peter’s upbringing was full of intellectual stimulation. His father, Leonard, thin and slight like his son, taught chemistry at Columbia, which afforded the Winston family a heavily subsidized three-bedroom apartment on Riverside Drive. His mother, Florence, taller and more physically robust than her husband, had a master’s degree of her own from Columbia’s Teachers College and acted in Off Off Broadway plays periodically when she wasn’t obligated to take teaching jobs. (Florence died in 2010.) His sister, Wynde, older by 10 years, attended High School of the Performing Arts and later Goddard College, where her acting skills were singled out by a young Stephen King. Now 64, she runs her own family law and mediation practice in Maryland. (Repeated attempts by The Observer to reach her were unsuccessful.)

Peter’s father died in 1967 of an unexpected heart attack. With Wynde away at college, Leonard’s death left Peter, then 9, and his mother to fend for themselves—and for Florence to dote excessively upon her youngest child. But by then, Peter, who was stoic about his father’s death, was immersed in a new world.

THE LAST RACE at the Meadowlands finished up just after midnight, and as the place emptied out, Peter went looking for Hertan. The kid was gone. How was he going to get home? He’d gambled away his stake and didn’t have enough for a return ticket to the Port Authority. He didn’t want to call his mother or sister. He wasn’t up for a lecture.
Instead he dialed a house in Piscataway, N.J. How Peter got hold of the number, no one knows. More mysterious was his reason for seeking out the person on the other end of the line. Peter knew John Fedorowicz—nicknamed “The Fed” in his grandmaster years—from chess competitions; they’d played against each other several times. But they weren’t friends. Not even close. In fact, they tended to snipe at each other at tournaments.

Fedorowicz was in Piscataway crashing at a friend’s place, and he’d only told a few people where he was. And yet, here was Peter on the line, asking for a ride home at an ungodly hour. Fedorowicz said he had neither a car nor a license, adding, “And if I did know how to drive, I wouldn’t pick you up anyway!” Peter promptly hung up. Clearly calling Fedorowicz had been a bad idea. But all he had were bad ideas. And another quarter for a phone call he’d hoped not to have to make.

ACCOUNTS DIFFER OVER HOW Winston learned to play chess. His father might have taught him, or maybe he learned by himself. But he took to the game right away, replaying matches by famous masters in class at Sands Point and creating inter-class tournaments. He’d go into a hypnotic trance while playing, and if he lost a game—a rarity—he grew sullen and surly, sometimes throwing temper tantrums.

He moved quickly into competitive play, racking up tournament wins. Where some players attacked at every opportunity, Peter played a more “positional” style, choosing the right move, aggressive or defensive, depending on his opponent’s strategy. By the time he was 10, his games were being written up in Chess Life. In his early teens, he was offered a contract by Random House to write a book about chess. (The book was never published, and the contract was canceled.)

Winston’s play at the U.S. Junior Championships in Philadelphia in 1974 seemed to many a sign of potential greatness. Eight players qualified for the round-robin tournament; whoever scored the highest after seven games would be named the winner. The tournament’s heavy favorite was Larry Christiansen, then the best young player out of California, eventually a grandmaster. Christiansen played to form and finished first, but shared the prize with Winston, who also scored 5.5 points out of seven. The two young men played to a draw in their first game, in which Winston, behind early, rallied his way back. When it was clear they would share the title, the U.S. Chess Federation decided to send Christiansen to the U.S. Open in New York and Winston to the World Junior Championships in Manila, where he finished a disappointing sixth.

That was as good as Winston would ever get.