The Mysterious Disappearance of Peter Winston

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

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.

The Mysterious Disappearance of Peter Winston