Authored by Marty Kelly
Matt with Middle Schoolers on Free Choice Friday
Please don’t judge me, but I didn’t pick up a pandemic hobby. I mean, if gluttony counts, then absolutely I did. And, sure, I dyed my hair hot pink at one point, but other than that, I was quite the pandemic let down. Unsurprisingly though, many of my colleagues were far more pandemic productive than I. For example, while the rest of the world was burning bread and whipping coffee, Upper School English teacher Matt Luter was concocting crosswords. The crossword king sat down with me last week to talk about crossword puzzles and draw back the veil to the crossworld. That’s right. The crossworld.
As it turns out, there is a person behind each puzzle. Matt quickly clarified, though, that the person behind the puzzle is not typically hunkered down with a No. 2 pencil and graph paper laboriously filling in boxes. It’s 2021 after all. There’s software for that. But don’t think that a computer just generates an entire puzzle at the click of a button. Well, okay, it can, but the puzzle wouldn’t be good. And that matters. Obviously. Puzzles have personality. “The first few I made are bad,” Matt said about the puzzles he started making a year ago. They were “not as elegant” as they could have been. Who knew “elegant” was a word that would describe a crossword? I’m learning. In listening to Matt explain the puzzle process, I realize what I’m watching is very much an art infused with the creator’s whims: from the placement of black squares to the long key words in the puzzle, from choosing a theme to cluemaking with puns. Given Matt’s profession as an English teacher, literary references abound in his puzzles. When he started making puzzles, he got some good advice: “Make the crosswords that you would want to do.” And so he does. In addition to literary nods in his puzzles, “I like to do clues based on trivia,” he said. I remembered pre-pandemic that he and other SA faculty dominated local trivia nights, but when I asked Matt if he is good at trivia, he self-deprecatingly laughed: “I mean if I say yes, then I sound ridiculous.” Finally and begrudgingly he admitted, “I carry my weight on a pub trivia team.” I’m pretty sure he does more than that. And how does he know so much stuff, you may ask? You will never expect this answer. READING. Okay, so you probably did expect that answer. Specifically, Matt said his knowledge is from “reading a whole lot, reading lots of different stuff,” and “reading fiction widely and paying attention to the news.” I am always trying to get my students to be more culturally literate, and now I can add “pub trivia” and “crosswording prowess” to the list of why they need to be up on culture.
So obviously the pandemic played a part in his puzzle-ing, but what was the journey before then? Matt said he has “always been a puzzle person…always puzzley or gamey stuff…trivia and words based things like Scrabble.” Around 7-8 years ago, he got the subscription to The New York Times crossword and started doing it religiously everyday. Enter the pandemic, and crossword puzzle competitions that used to be in person went virtual, so Matt started dabbling. And he was (to no one’s surprise) good. “I placed in a couple,” he finally revealed to me after prodding. “I had a few top ten finishes,” he continued, “At the American Crossword Tournament in March, which is the big one, there are about a thousand people, and I was in the top 30, but I had one error.” He has already vowed that if the tournament is in person this year, his personal days will be spent in April attending.
Even “geekier” (his word, not mine) than participating in tournaments, he said, is the fact that he subscribes to an email everyday with a list of Indie crossword puzzle makers. And apparently the fact that there is a crossword twitterverse goes without saying. And just how is Matt making a name for himself in the crossworld? Well, for starters, let’s talk about his crossword brand: Lutercross. Matt, whose aversion to self-promotion is clear, says this brand is both to get his name out and is also a “nod to a silly family story.” When his oldest brother Chris was born, his parents were very careful to pay attention to initials and possible nicknames before naming him. It wasn’t until they looked down at the hospital bracelet that they realized they had essentially named their son “ludicrous.” Matt’s Lutercross crosswords (a clever hybridized wink to this family name hilarity) are published on his website (matthewluter.com) every Tuesday morning.
Besides sharing his gift of crossword puzzles with Middle Schoolers on Free Choice Friday, Matt has also submitted several to the Los Angeles Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The New York Times. “All rejections so far,” he said, but they have given him “helpful” and “actual feedback,” so he will keep trying. One of the beautiful if frustrating things about crossword creation, he reveals, is that “solving one problem creates another.” For me, a crossword try-er (I aspire to be a do-er), it feels the same when doing them: more problems than solutions. I told him that I try to do his crosswords, and I’m definitely not smart enough or clever enough or cross-wise enough or something. I told him that I have to click on the “Reveal” hint button for letters and words, like, a whole lot. Matt laughs and dismisses the idea when people say they “cheated” when solving one of his crosswords. He said, “Cheating doesn’t exist” in this context; there is no great crossword test for which we are all training. Puzzles are for fun. So, perhaps our Honor Code needs an asterisk: I will neither lie, nor cheat*, nor steal (*not applicable in the crossworld). As the Honor Council advisor and aspiring crossworder, I approve this message.
Find the latest Lutercross crossword here.