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Monday, March 22, 2010

The Peter Winston Mystery

One of the biggest mysteries in US Chess was the disappearance of Peter Winston (b. March 18, 1958). He was one of the most talented young US players of his day and was a former winner of the US Junior Championship. In his early career Winston was considered to be a talent with nearly the potential of Bobby Fischer.

In 1977 he played in a FIDE rated tournament at Hunter College High School in New York City where he was one of the highest rated players in the tournament but lost all 9 games!

After the event he left the tournament supposedly on his way home but was never seen again. Many have suggested he killed himself but no body was ever found. Winston’s name does not appear on the Social Security Death Index, but that may simply be because his death was never established.

His disappearance controversy because Arpad Elo, the FIDE Ratings Administrator, felt that it was statistically virtually impossible for a rated chess master to lose all of his games and therefore the games must have been thrown. Elo therefore refused to rate the entire tournament, thereby depriving many young players of their new FIDE ratings.

One player claimed that in his next to last tournament he used analysis prepared by GM Anatoly Lein and Winston accused the player’s girlfriend of offering to sleep with him in return for throwing the game. As it turned out Winston totally refuted Lein’s analysis over the board.
U.S> Master and TD, Bill Goichberg, wrote of Winslow’s last event:

It was a 10 player round robin futurity. Calvin Blocker and Dr. Karl Burger tied for first. Peter Winston lost all of his games. His last game was against Sunil Weeramantry. After losing that last game, Winston left to go home, but was never seen again. It is presumed that he killed himself in such a way that his body was never found.

I drove Winston home a number of times during that tournament. He had many favorable positions, but lost them all. His face was puffed up from the effects of drug addiction or its treatment, and he was staying at a drug rehab facility. I think he is probably dead, but if so believe this was drug related and probably not suicide.

Actually prior to his disappearance Winston had several poor tournament results. Charles Hertan, who is a psychotherapist, believes he is one of the last people to see Peter Winston before the disappearance . Hertan speculates that Winston was bi-polar and that led to poor judgment in going out into a really bad snowstorm, after which he was never heard from again. A body was found, so he is presumed dead, but no one knows his ultimate fate. The suicide theory is also plausible because apparently people suffering from bi-polar disease can reach depressive states that are suicidal.

Guess we’ll never know.

Some of his games can be found here:
Chess Games of Peter Winston

Thanks to the lead supplied by "anonymous", here is an update from Charles Hertan’s article in Chess Life:

From Wikipedia.com, the online encyclopedia: "Peter Jonathan Winston was born March 18, 1958, in New York City. He was an American chess player. In 1974, he shared first prize in the U.S. Junior Chess Championship."

"He is most famous for his mysterious disappearance in early 1978. This came several months after poor tournament results. Reportedly, he left his home ... during a severe winter storm, was reported missing, and never seen again. He is presumed dead. Some reports suggest that his disappearance was a suicide."

Charles Hertan, a close friend on Winston, writing in the Chess Life article stated, “I do not have any miracle answers to the Peter Winston mystery, but I can supply much new, and more accurate, information about his life and death.” Hertan and Winston were classmates at New York University in 1977-78 and Hertan believes he, not Bill Goichberg, was the last chess player to see Winston before he disappeared.

Winston’s father died sometime after he (Winston) turned 15 and Hertan stated, “We never discussed this event in much detail, but I … realize(d) what a profound impact this event had on his chess career, and on his later mental health problems…For a time, Winston coped by absorbing himself in chess…we became friends, in the fall of 1977…”

In January, 1978, during a school break, Hertan began to realize Winston was having problems and about a week after receiving a call from Winston, Hertan went to visit Winston at his apartment and stated he found him in a “crazed state… talking rapidly and rather incoherently.” Winston advised Hertan that he was treated for bipolar ("manic-depressive") illness, but had gone off his medication.

At Winston’s insistence, Hertan accompanied him to a race track and when Hertan wanted to go home Winston was unnaturally euphoric, refused to leave and ran off into the crowd, so Hertan left alone.

Some weeks later he got as call form Winston’s mother asking if he knew anything. Winston’s mother said that he had returned to his sister's apartment that night, but the next day had left without his wallet or ID and was never seen again. Hertan stated that while suicide could not be ruled out, there were other possibilities such, “Perhaps he died of exposure, or wandered into an unsafe neighborhood and was murdered. Or maybe in the throes of mental illness, he overdosed on hard drugs…”


  1. Unfortunately, the account of Peter Winston's disappearance given here blends two earlier accounts, one correct, the other completely false. The false account stated that Winston disappeared in November 1977, after a bad tournament. However, it has now been established that Winston was living normally in New York for several months after that tournament. The correct information was published in Chess Life in 2007, by Peter's friend Charles Hertan. According to Hertan's account, Peter disappeared in late January 1978. Hertan's account is confirmed by a second account, published by New York master Jon Jacobs, on the Chess Ninja website. Jacobs and Hertan, both of whom knew Winston well, have both stated that Winston left New York during a major winter storm in January 1978, and was never seen again.

  2. Thanks for the information. Unfortunately I don't have my Chess Life collection anymore so don't have access to the article.

  3. For more information, or to corroborate the above, you might want to contact either Charles Hertan or Jon Jacobs directly. Charles Hertan has worked in a variety of fields, and is now a photographer, living up in New England. His website is: www.charliehertanphotograpy.com. Jon Jacobs is a financial executive and writer in New York City. His website is: www.jacobsfinance.com. You may also be able to pull up Hertan's article in Chess Life by going to the Wikipedia article on Winston, and clicking on the references.

    I also knew Peter Winston when we played in the scholastic tournaments in the early 1970s. He and I played each other four times in 1970-74, the score being 2.5 to 1.5 in his favor. I lost touch with chess after leaving New York in September 1974, and only found out about Peter's disappearance some thirty years later. To say that it was a shock would be an understatement. It seemed incredible that such an intelligent, promising player could have ended up this way.

  4. I have always wondered why Chess Life never bothered to report on what happened to players like Raymond Weinstein, Peter Winston and Lembit Oll…too tragic maybe. For example, I was wondering for over 30 years what happened to Weinstein until I stumbled upon Sam Sloan’s article that appeared on his website.

  5. I suspect that the reason Chess Life did not report on Peter Winston's disappearance in 1978 was that Winston's star was fading. The last time that I saw him, which was in the summer of 1974, he was in peak form, having just shared first prize in the U.S. Junior Championship, with a score of 5.5-1.5, against a very strong field.

    But the following year, he finished last, and in 1976 he failed to qualify. Several people who knew him have stated that he was suffering from depression at the time. This undoubtedly affected his ability to play.

    Unfortunately, the world of chess is very unforgiving about such matters. Chess players are only rewarded for their tournament scores, and are rarely accorded any sympathy for events in their personal lives.

    You may also want to review the comments posted at the website www.chessgames.com. To bring these up, run a search under "Peter Jonathan Winston". There are repeated comments by two people who apparently knew Winston fairly well, identified there as Strongest Force and Maynard. Both of them were quite sympathetic.

    Also, I hope that once you have reviewed the evidence, you will modify the original story to remove any incorrect information. Thank you.

  6. I have discovered Hertan's article and will make the corrections.

  7. More than 30 years later, Peter Winston’s disappearance continues to be a haunting mystery. Various theories have been proposed, ranging from suicide to homicide. But after re-reading Hertan’s article, and the comments over at ChessGames.com, the most likely explanation seems to be that it was a terrible accident.

    Several sources confirm that after going out to New Jersey on January 26, Winston returned to New York, and then left again, having apparently forgotten his wallet. Where he went was a matter of conjecture, but he was headed out into a storm with no money or identification. This particular storm was unusually severe, and blanketed the entire East Coast. Hertan’s article suggests that he could have become stranded in the storm, and died of exposure. One of the comments at ChessGames.com suggests that he could have been in an accident – the storm paralyzed traffic all the way from Maine to Virginia. Either way, the body could not have been identified.

    Perhaps the worst irony is that if Winston had simply gone home, to wait out the storm in the shelter of his apartment, he might still be alive today.

  8. Mr. Tartajubow,

    My name is Tony Evelina and I am the New York Area Director for the Doe Network (www.doenetwork.org)
    We are a missing and unidentified persons clearinghouse.

    I am currently working on the mysteriouos disapearance of Peter Winston.

    I was wondering where I may find a picture of Peter.

    I was hoping you can help me.

    You can contact me at tonyevelina@gmail.com

    Thank, you

  9. There's a photo in my Chess Life article.

  10. How does one get a copy of your Chess Life article?

  11. ^-- same post author as above

    I found your article in the USCF 'Chess Life' archives, though since I read it, it seems to have been taken down.

    I was one of Peter's teachers in the early 70s, at the street school he ran with other students. I last heard from him around the same time the article's author did. Assuming you're he, perhaps we should communicate further.

  12. Peter's mother was my English teacher in high school. She was a sweet woman with a bit of a mystical affect who taught a very sophisticated literature class. The only time I saw Peter was around 1969 when his mother had a party in her tiny Manhattan apartment for the class. We were all crammed into the living room, and he was in his Mother's bedroom playing chess with one of our class chess fans but otherwise ignoring us. We weren't offended as he already had the reputation of having a life revolving around chess. I feel bad not for Peter, who seems little more than a bunch of chess algorithms gone sour, but for his mother. What did that poor, empathic and senstive women do to deserve a son consumed by an arid game that consumed him alive.