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The Puzzle of a Lost Prodigy
What really happened to American chess prodigy Peter Winston?

The Puzzle of a Lost Prodigy

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The year 1978 saw one of the most controversial and heated World Chess Championships unfold between Anatoly Karpov and Victor Korchnoi, with both sides trying to knock each other down with all sorts of jabs, hooks, and uppercuts, along with throwing different accusations at each other. On the flip side, the Women's World Chess Championship 1978 took place with many back-and-forth battles, resulting in the victory of the youngest women's World Champion of the time, Maia Chiburdanidze. 

So, in such an eventful year, nothing could go wrong, right? Well, I am afraid to tell you, it very much did. Amid all this top-level drama, Peter Winston, an American chess prodigy, the winner of the US Junior Championship in 1974 and a top-ten finisher in the World Youth Championship the same year, disappeared under mysterious circumstances and was never heard from or seen again. How does a kid written up as a boy genius disappear? Let's delve into his early years and chess career to receive an answer. 


TABLE OF CONTENTS 



Dawn of Brilliance: A Remarkable Start


The streets of New York City, 1958. Credit to Flickr.com.

Peter Jonathan Winston was born in New York City on March 18, 1958. His parents, Leonard and Florence Winston, were teachers at Columbia University. When she wasn't teaching, his mother also indulged in theatre, occasionally taking roles in small productions. He had a sister named Wynde. Tragically, his father passed away when he was only nine (according to his friend Charles Hertan, he died when Peter was 15). Following the demise of his father, his mother appeared to hold onto him more tightly.

Peter established himself as a brainiac from a very early age. At 18 months, he acquired knowledge of the alphabet by consulting the Encyclopedia Britannica, and shortly after that, he commenced reading, achieving this milestone before turning two. By age three, he demonstrated proficiency in basic arithmetic, including understanding and manipulating fractions. Apart from that, he could instantly calculate the day of the week for his birthday any year! 

At 5 years old, he precisely analyzed the assassination of John F. Kennedy using information gathered from newspapers and television programs during class. At 6 years old, he was sent to Sands Point, a school for gifted boys on Long Island. His classmates and teachers described him as the most intelligent person they had ever met. 


Early Chess Years


When and how Peter was introduced to the game remains a mystery. Still, it constituted a noteworthy aspect of his life from a young age, actively participating in the tournaments in the New York Area. In 1967 he won the New York elementary school championship, securing a perfect score. He won the event again in 1968. 

Credit goes to Chess life. April 1968, page 140.

In 1969, at age 11, he attained the first position in the Open section of the New York High School Championship. Additionally, within the same year, he emerged victorious in the New York Junior High School Championship. Here's a game he played in the year 1970: 

At the 2nd Annual Mid-Atlantic Open in Philadelphia on December 4-5, 1971, Leroy Dubeck emerged as the winner, with Paul Brandts, Peter Winston, and Sergei Goregliad following closely. Grandmaster Walter Browne drew with Dubeck, Goregliad, and Winston, marking Winston's second draw with a Grandmaster within two months at age 13.

Peter became a master just 3 months after his 14th birthday in June 1972, 10 months shy of Fischer's accomplishment, which was becoming a master at the age of 13 years and 5 months. The following month, on a Saturday afternoon in Midtown Manhattan, Peter Winston again faced Walter Browne, regarded as perhaps the best American player not named Bobby Fischer.  

It had to be a cakewalk, and it was indeed a cakewalk. But not for Walter Browne, but for Peter Winston who emerged victorious. "He blew up Browne’s position in a way that never happens to a player of his caliber", as Chess Life magazine explained. Winston's victory over the more experienced player was so resounding that it became a topic of discussion in chess circles for years to come.

In this month of June, after five years of tournaments, I became a ranked master. The next match, played in the first round of the Atlantic Open (held July 1-4 in New York City), was my third meeting with Grandmaster Walter Browne. In the previous two matches I lost and drew, having overlooked a forced victory in the latter. The Atlantic Open was won by Senior Master Walter Shipman in a tiebreak over Master Norman Weinstein, both 7-1. I finished with 5½-2½, Browne with 6-2.

- Peter Winston

During 1972 and 1973, he participated in several tournaments, achieving good results, with the most notable ones being the New England Championship where he finished fourth, and the Master Candidates section, where he won by tiebreak.  


1974: The Most Successful Year


1974 was the most fruitful and successful year for Peter Winston. From the 9th US Youth Championship to the World Youth Championship, everybody knew until now that a star was in the making. 


US Youth Chess Championship

The city of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where the 1974 US Junior Championship was held.

Eight young masters battled it out in the US Junior Chess Championship held between June and July in the city of Philadelphia. It was one of the strongest tournaments Peter had ever participated in with some fierce competitors. One of them was the well-known Larry Christiansen

Winston and Christiansen recorded four wins and three draws, finishing with 5.5/7. Despite implementing play-off systems, they remained tied, leading to the declaration of both young masters as co-champions. However, this posed a problem for the USCF, as the prize for the winner was a free-of-charge trip to the World Youth Championship, which would take place in Manila, Philippines the next month. The runner-up was to earn a similar treatment in terms of expenses but at the New York City Open. 

But thanks to Larry Christiansen, who had already attained an international rating, allowed Peter Winston to participate in the soon-to-be-held prestigious event in Manila, by agreeing to play in a European tournament shortly instead of the New York City Open. 

The final standings of the US Youth Championship 1974. Credit to Chess Life.

World Youth Chess Championship

Manila, the capital city of the Philippines. Credit to Klook.com.

The World U-20 Chess Championship was all set to take place in Manila. The event incorporated a preliminary phase with 28 participating players, conducted through a seven-round Swiss system tournament, with the top ten finishers getting a chance to play in the final along with a 10-round Italian tournament. 

The trio of Tony Miles, Lars-Ake Schneider, and Sergio Giardelli won the preliminary phase with a total of 5 points to the name of each player. Peter Winston finished 8th, but not before putting up a tough challenge in front of Miles in their game. 

The standings of the preliminary stage.

In the final stage, Tony Miles asserted dominance with 7 points, whereas Peter Winston secured 8th place with 4 points, ultimately losing the match against Miles. Anthony John Miles was now the World Junior Chess Champion, with Roy Dieks being the runner-up. 

The standings of the final stage. Credit to Chess Life.

Drugs and Depression 


From 1975 onwards, there was a decline in Peter Winston's game. But this wasn't just a normal tilt, this was something deeper than that. To understand what went wrong with a player who was once remarked as having the same talent as Bobby Fischer in his early years, we need to travel back to when he was twelve. 

Those who remembered him from school stated that Peter had started saying he was burnt out from chess and bored of school. Soon, he began experimenting with small doses of LSD. He continued taking it despite having bad experiences. He showed signs of suffering from depersonalization and had a loss of feelings of self and other mental problems. 

Upon entering college, he experienced a nervous breakdown, leading to his hospitalization at the insistence of his mother. Initially diagnosed with schizophrenia, his medical condition was later reclassified by doctors as manic depression. Over the following two years, Winston received regular hospital care.

Peter Winston as a teenager.

Peter frequently mentioned to his friends that his primary medication for treatment was Thorazine, an antipsychotic drug, which had done something unusual to his brain. Winston experienced distractions, difficulty concentrating, and a departure from his usual thinking patterns. Being prescribed medication, he was dissatisfied with its impact on his mental state. He often discontinued his prescribed medications and resorted to self-medication with drugs and alcohol.

In the 7th Annual National Chess Congress 1976, he participated in the expert section and finished 6th position. In the 1977 New Jersey Open, he finished second place by tiebreak. But the collapse began when he played a rated FIDE tournament at Hunter College High School in New York City, and despite being one of the highest-rated players, he lost all of his nine games. 

Arpad Elo, the FIDE Ratings Administrator, believed that it was statistically impossible for a rated chess master to lose every game, and therefore the games must have been thrown. As a result, Elo declined to assign ratings for the entire tournament. By now, the truth was that Peter Winston's once-promising chess career was crumbling as he began to lose most of the matches he played.  

The people who were closest to him believed that the reason behind his erratic behavior was him quitting lithium cold turkey. A sudden discontinuation in the doses of lithium can cause manic behaviors and depression. While he wasn't experiencing high manic behaviors, he couldn't feel joy, sadness, or excitement. 


Disappearance


His friend, Charles Hertan received a phone call from Peter on one evening in January 1978. He visited him next week and stated that he had started living in disarray and did not focus on hygiene. His room had become a mess, with dirt everywhere and cockroaches roaming all over. Peter also looked horrible, with his eyes red and tired. Later in the day, he and Charles went to watch the horse races, where Peter gambled all his money by making losing bets. 

At midnight, Peter called his chess rival John Fedorowicz, and asked for a ride home. But John refused since he didn't have a car. It was his sister Wynde who picked him up and allowed him to stay at her apartment for the rest of the night. The next morning, when his sister advised him to visit a doctor, he jumped and ran out of the apartment screaming. He was last reported to be at his friend's house, where he expressed his desire to meet Walter Korn, a chess author.

However, Peter's strange actions and comments concerned the parents of his friend, and they decided to contact his mother. But his mother couldn't pick him up, because as soon as Peter learned that his mother knew where he was, he quickly said goodbye to his friend and left. This was the last time anyone saw him. 

The Great Blizzard of 1978. Credit to Spectrum News.

A few days after his disappearance, the "Great Blizzard of 1978" hit New York City. This natural disaster was ranked 4th of the 10 most destructive snowstorms of all time. Peter did not have a coat with him, and, likely, he did not survive the storm. But nobody knows what happened to him. The storm had erased his last traces. His last published FIDE rating was 2220. 

As he was not reported missing and lacked any identification documents, there was no missing persons file available for comparison. A body was found, so he is presumed dead, but as previously stated, nobody knows his real fate. The State of New York has over 30,000 unidentified bodies buried within the state. Hertan conjectures that Winston may have been bipolar, which might have contributed to his lapse in judgment in venturing out during a severe snowstorm. 

An investigation was never undertaken in this case. His family refused to comment on his disappearance. Peter's mother died in 2010, while his sister is still alive. However, she can now only recall a few details of this distressing narrative. In the end, all we are left is with one conclusion, Peter Jonathan Winston had walked away and vanished. 


Conclusion 


I hope you all enjoyed reading the blog. With Chess.com bestowing me with the Top Blogger title, I am glad that I was able to present this story to a larger audience. Though a sad story of a really talented individual, we are once again presented with an example that the addiction to drugs can ruin even highly-achieved people. 

Here are the sources used for writing the blog: True Crime Mysteries' article, Mario Spadaro's article, Tartajubow's blog, and Wikipedia.

This will be the end of this blog, so thanks for reading it to the end. I am not really sure when my next blog will be out, but hey, if you want me to blog on a certain topic, you can write in the comments and I will consider it. 

For now, thanks for reading the blog again, and until next time, I am outta here.