It should have been a cakewalk. On a Saturday afternoon in 1972 in a seedy hotel conference room in Midtown Manhattan, two men faced off across a chessboard. Well, one of them was a man—Walter Browne, a six-time United States champion regarded as perhaps the best American player not named Bobby Fischer. Facing him was a 14-year-old kid only a few years removed from his very first game. Dark, curly hair curtained his eyes. He was slight and a little over medium height, with a notable lack of physical coordination that belied a singular concentration. He was good, sometimes very good, and many observers considered him a future star. But he wasn’t Walter Browne.
Thirty-seven moves later, it had indeed been a cakewalk. But it was the kid, Peter Winston, who emerged the victor, “blowing up Browne’s position in a way that never happens to a player of his caliber,” as Chess Life magazine explained. Winston crushed the elder player so decisively that their contest would be discussed in chess circles for years, called simply “The Game.”
Winston, some thought, had the chops to be a grandmaster. Instead, a few years later, he would make a move more bewildering than anything he’d done in front of a chessboard.
ON A LATE-JANUARY AFTERNOON in 1978, Charles Hertan—then not quite 18 and visiting with his family in New Jersey—got a strange phone call. It was his friend Peter, insisting that Hertan come see him at the roach-infested Bleecker Street apartment he called home. Peter didn’t sound like himself. His words came out in a rush, like someone in the grips of a manic episode.
Hertan told Peter he couldn’t get back to the city yet, but he returned a week later, once school was back in session. It might have been around January 25, or it might have been a week after that, Mr. Hertan told The Observer in a telephone interview.
Peter shared his apartment with a roommate who kept to himself. The place was in even worse shape than Hertan remembered from the previous semester, when he’d often been among those hanging around till the late hours playing poker or blitz chess for cash. Peter looked terrible, too. He clearly hadn’t slept or bathed. His eyes darted around. He’d gone off his medication.
He was determined to go to the Meadowlands to bet on the harness races. And he wanted Hertan to come along.
“He kept wheedling me to come,” Mr. Hertan recalled. “He didn’t sound very good. I didn’t know how to refuse him.”
Hertan noted that and Peter had spent hours together in the previous months, forming a trio with another friend and competitive chess player, Mike Polowan. When the three weren’t in classes, they hung out in Peter’s apartment, listening to Jefferson Airplane, the Moody Blues and Dylan, or at Mahmoun’s Falafel around the corner, or over in Washington Square Park.
Polowan wasn’t around, though, and Peter wasn’t taking no for an answer.
So off the two boys went, taking the bus from the Port Authority. They sang the Moodies’ “Melancholy Man” together, which struck Hertan as a strangely appropriate song choice. Despite the euphoria and the sarcastic wit that was a hallmark of Peter’s personality, Hertan knew something was very wrong.
For at least an hour (Mr. Hertan’s memory was hazy here) the two gambled at the track—or rather, Peter gambled and lost while Hertan watched. The clock sailed past midnight and Hertan grew tired. But Peter refused to leave. He became angry and suddenly dashed off, disappearing into the throng. Hertan looked around frantically. He was tired and had to get home. Peter was an adult, Hertan thought. He could fend for himself.
But Charles Hertan never saw Peter Winston again.
NEW YORKERS DISAPPEAR all the time. A handful leap into the public eye and remain there, like 6-year-old Etan Patz. An even smaller number miraculously return after decades, like Carlina White, stolen as a baby from a Harlem hospital in 1987 and found more than 20 years later when she discovered her real identity. But most are forgotten, lost to history through apathy or outright indifference.
What makes the case of Peter Winston so baffling is that at one time he was fairly well-known. The cover of the December 19, 1964, edition of The Saturday Evening Post bears the words “BOY GENIUS,” and inside, not far removed from a short story by Thomas Pynchon, is Gilbert Millstein’s account of a very special 6-year-old child attending one of the earliest of the schools for gifted children that popped up around the New York City area, Sands Point Elementary in Long Island.
Peter was, Millstein wrote, “a wiry, intense-looking youngster with dark-blond hair and hazel eyes, big ears, a wide vulnerable mouth and a somewhat oracular manner of address that is in peculiar contrast to both the shape of his mouth and his childish treble.” At 18 months, he learned the alphabet by studying the spines of the Encyclopedia Britannica, and he was reading the volumes mere months after that. He mastered fractions by 3. He could tell people—as he did Sands Point’s headmaster—what day of the week their birthday would fall on in any given year using the “calendar in his head.” At age 5, Peter stood up in class and gave a detailed precis of the assassination of President Kennedy, cobbled together from newspaper and TV accounts. He even argued about the existence of God with a classmate, Richard Brody, now a writer for The New Yorker, fascinating the teacher who overheard a snatch of the conversation.
Mr. Brody and other Sands Point classmates remembered Peter as the smartest person they ever knew, and a total eccentric. While the other kids ate cafeteria food, Peter brought the same brown-bag lunch—“salami wrapped in tinfoil, a container of milk and a banana,” Mr. Brody said—every day. He wore hunter boots where others wore penny loafers, and at baseball games he would generally broadcast the action to himself.
His gait was awkward, arms and legs flailing, except when he ran outdoors, which he did with joyful abandon. Peter questioned authority with a biting wit—provoking his sixth-grade science teacher to threaten to “put a rock in his skull.” (The teacher was later fired.)
He burned with such intensity and charisma, Mr. Brody recalled, that if he desired to be a leader, “he would have been followed eagerly and without hesitation.” But as late as age 6, Peter was still sleeping in a crib in his parents’ bedroom, baffling his classmates.
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.
THOUGH HE’D DREADED calling her, Peter’s sister came through. She drove out to the Meadowlands, picked him up and took him back to her apartment to sleep for the night. Going home did not appear to be an option for him. But in the morning, Wynde issued an ultimatum: he could continue to stay at her place, but only if he agreed to see a doctor.
There was good reason to worry about Peter’s mental health. As far back as age 12, he’d struggled with his sense of self. He lasted just a year at New Lincoln High School, on the Upper West Side, telling a researcher from the Harvard Educational Review in 1970 that he was “sick and tired of the daily grind…of having boring classes…and all that shit.” He was burnt out on chess and told friends he’d quit. He began using LSD and often had bad trips. His mother didn’t know what to do with him.
Then, together with a number of other disaffected New Lincoln students, he helped co-found an alternative high school, the fancifully-named Elizabeth Cleaners Street School, that was designed as a kind of educational utopia. The kids would pick the curriculum, hire teachers, oversee everything. “I thought the ideal of having something much freer—and where people would be much more happy than in regular school—was going to work,” Winston said in 1971.
He struggled to adapt at first and spoke about feeling alienated. But for a year, chronicled in the 1972 book Starting Your Own High School, Peter seemed happy, helped along by classmates and mentored by their teacher, David Nasaw—now a history professor at the CUNY Graduate Center and an accomplished biographer. The educational utopia had a short shelf life, however: Nasaw departed after a year, Peter more or less stopped attending in year two, and by the end of its third year, in June 1973, Elizabeth Cleaners was no more.
Eventually, with Nasaw’s help, Peter was accepted at Franconia College, an alternative school in New Hampshire that was receptive to his unorthodox background. There he would deepen his interest in radical leftist politics (Mr. Polowan remembered Peter being sympathetic to the Soviet Union, so much so that he “thought the Americans were the bad guys in the Cold War”) and perhaps improve his luck with women, which, like that of many intellectually gifted young men, approached zero.
Winston started at Franconia in September 1975, when he was 17. By early 1976, he was back in New York. He’d suffered a psychotic break and was taken to a local hospital, where he stayed for several weeks. The doctors there diagnosed him as schizophrenic and prescribed heavy doses of Thorazine. Later, he was labeled manic-depressive instead. Mr. Polowan recalled speaking to Peter on the phone not long after he left Franconia. “He was relatively calm and kept saying everything was O.K., and that the doctors overreacted,” Mr. Polowan told The Observer. “But it was pretty clear he wasn’t O.K.”
Peter spent at least another year in and out of hospitals, largely at New York Psychiatric Institute in Washington Heights. “He was in a padded room, and I could barely recognize him,” Mr. Nasaw recalled of one of Winston’s earliest NYPI hospitalizations. “He was almost catatonic.” Another friend, Jon Jacobs, also visited Winston at NYPI around the summer of 1977, after Winston apparently checked himself in voluntarily. At one point after he got out, Jacobs asked him what it felt like during a breakdown. “He told me, ‘You know that line from the Dylan song “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall”? I was convinced I was the executioner,’” Mr. Jacobs recalled. “I didn’t know what he meant by that, but thought it was a response to all the evils of the world.”
Peter told friends that the Thorazine he’d been given had done something to his brain, and he grew increasingly frustrated that he couldn’t think like he used to. “He wasn’t as bright and sharp and quick,” said Mr. Polowan, who eventually became an internationally ranked bridge player. “He wasn’t a simpering idiot, but it was clear something that was lost. I think he was aware and fairly embittered about it.”
Peter despaired about how lithium was destroying his ability to play chess. He thought his psychiatrist was more interested in avoiding malpractice suits than helping him.
Peter still entered chess tournaments, but the promise he showed as U.S. junior chess champion had largely evaporated. Sporadic flashes of brilliance couldn’t overcome losing streaks, as when he lost all his games at a November 1977 tournament on the Upper East Side. Rumors were rampant in the chess world that Peter had been to rehab and was still struggling with drug issues. Mr. Polowan, however, said he never saw Peter ingest anything aside from smoking the occasional joint. Medication for manic-depression, or bipolar disorder, is powerful enough to suggest a drug habit.
But Peter’s unkempt appearance and poor hygiene, so bad that Polowan’s mother had to fumigate the bedding he slept on during a visit to the family’s Long Island home, only worsened the drug rumors. As did going off lithium altogether, cold turkey.
THE MORNING AFTER his ill-fated trip to the Meadowlands, Peter responded to his sister’s ultimatum by running from her apartment, screaming as he tore down the stairs. He had no identification with him. He went to the home of an unidentified friend, someone from outside the chess world. The friend was at home with his family, and they invited Peter for lunch. As the meal went on, they grew increasingly worried by Peter’s demeanor. He was disheveled, his long curly hair even more unruly than usual. He was muttering something about going to Texas to see Walter Korn, author of the chess bible Modern Chess Openings, and said Korn “was God.” His friend’s parents were so disturbed by Peter’s comments they called his mother, according to Mr. Polowan.
Winston left not long after. No one ever saw him again.
Days, even hours later, the city was socked with the epic snowstorm now immortalized as the Blizzard of 1978.
PETER WINSTON ENTERED A VOID more than 34 years ago, a void so total that the NYPD has no record of anyone by his name disappearing from the city. (The Observer filed a revised FOIL request but has not received a response.) His social security number was never used again. His chess rating, both in the United States and internationally, persisted at around 2200 for several months before he fell out of the rankings altogether.
If Peter is alive, which is less likely with each passing year, it may be because he wound up in a mental institution and stayed there, with no one able to learn his identity. If he is dead, as all of his friends believe him to be, he may well be buried in a potter’s field. The Hart Island Project, a nonprofit organization founded and operated by the artist Melinda Hunt, is devoted to cataloging and listing the more than 30,000 individuals buried at the remote New York City island that has been the city’s graveyard for the indigent for decades. Of the dead at Hart Island, 550 individuals remain unidentified. When The Observer asked Ms. Hunt about searching records from 1978 and 1979, she said that the DOC claims they can’t find those two volumes, and that they have not yet responded to another freedom-of-information request her lawyers filed last November.
In chess, there is a situation known by the wonderfully pungent German word zugzwang, in which a player cannot make a move without worsening his or her fate. There is no solution that will eradicate the problem, no way for the player to win. At that point, the player can keep resisting or accept the futility of the situation and resign. The word applies all too well to the last documented years of Peter Winston’s life. Did he enter zugzwang when he disappeared, at Franconia, or even earlier? No one can say, and it may not matter. Peter Winston began life with a dizzying array of intellectual possibilities that were winnowed over time—until there was but one option left. We still don’t know his final move.