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Volume 38 Issue 19 • Sept. 4-10, 2008
now in our 37th season

The Word Wizard
An Interview with John Luttman

by Zoë Kirsch
August 13, 2008

So much of what we do can be viewed as small.  We get up, brush our teeth, get dressed, get on bicycle or in a car, go to work, arrive at work...Most days, we execute hundreds of relatively minuscule actions.  Their size can mean that we discount them and wait for something bigger and more important to happen.  This attitude makes sense in context.  21st century popular American culture isn't conducive to “stopping to smell the roses.”  Instead, the media encourages frenzied self-criticism and spending, all in the name of “self-improvement.” 

Many great thinkers have pondered the significance of the tiny.  For instance, Benjamin Franklin said, “Human felicity is produced not as much by great pieces of good fortune that seldom happen as by little advantages that occur every day.”  Others choose to inspire value of the small through their own day to day actions.

John Luttman can surely count himself among these sage beings.  The Nantucketer frequently plays Scrabble, his favorite pastime, with anyone and everyone at the downtown coffeehouse The Bean.   

There's really no better setting for the Scrabble sport than this café.  It is deliciously cozy and tends to be crowded.  The counter, behind which a variety of coffees are blended with love and care, is crowded with organic cookies and chocolate bars.  In the front (or the back, relative to the shop entrance), tables are accompanied by cushioned seating. 

When I approached Luttman there one Thursday afternoon, he received me enthusiastically, asking if I'd like to play a game of Scrabble during our interview.  What better way to talk to the game guru than over the Scrabble board?  So, with a uniquely blended backdrop of sounds—kids' squeals mixed with adults' chit-chat and music ranging from electric guitar to Parisian accordion—the interview and match began. 

“First of all,” Luttman said in his matter-of-fact, New York accent, “The low letter goes first.  Do you know how many two-letter words there are in Scrabble?”  He gave me a photocopied, handwritten list of about a hundred of these.  “This one you can keep.  And you have to get a red book.  This one,” he thumped his Official Scrabble Dictionary like it was an old friend, “came out three years ago.  I recently had to add five words to my two-letter list: 'ZA' which means pizza, 'QI'...”

“'ZA' counts?” I interrupted, unable to contain my curiosity.

“Yeah!  And, uh,” Luttman seemed to be rifling through his mental Scrabble Dictionary, “'OI' and 'KI'.”

“Are there any words that have a 'Q' but don't have a 'U'?”

The game conquistador was in his element: “'QI!', 'QAT', 'QANTH', 'QAID'...”

Luttman's Scrabble technique is excellent (this is the understatement of the century.)  “I was bad in English, but I'm good at Scrabble.”  He explained.  During our face off, he consistently scored above twenty points, using words like, “AA,” “HIE,” “QUIS,” “ROK,” “EMU,” and “ALP.”  On average, he puts down a seven-letter word (gaining him fifty extra points) one-and-a-half times per game.   

The Nantucket resident started playing intensely seven years ago.  As a kid, he Scrabble-d it up “veeery little...And I've learned at least forty or fifty thousand words since then.  I didn't know certain things had a meaning to 'em, which they do!”

Why has Mr. Luttman chosen the word board game?  “The thing about Scrabble is every game is different.  You keep learning new words.  It's fun playing people that are very keep learning new words.”  

Luttman's interests seem to ebb and flow naturally, like the tides.  As a kid, his favorite pastime was “When television came out.  I remember we had no television, then it came out!”  Luttman sometimes enjoys reading: “When I was very young, I read very few books.  Then I read a whole bunch about, hm, thirteen years ago.  For about five years straight I read about five hundred books.  Now, I don't read books.”  Luttman's style fits beautifully with Emerson's theory that, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”   

How did Mr. Luttman come to this Island?  (His native home is New York City.)  In 1980, “A person told me she bought a house over here and asked me to work on it.  That's how I heard about Nantucket and that's why I came here.”   

Town is Luttman's favorite place to be (“It's right where the people are.”)  How did he discover The Bean?  “I was looking for a cup of coffee!”  he jokes.  “No, but really.  I wanted a place to have coffee and sit down.  You know, because before then I used to play Scrabble in what is now the Even Keel.  Then, we came in here, played over here.  It was a place to sit down.  Without people trying to getcha out.  That's why I like The Bean also.  You can relax and play.”  Luttman supplies the games here (“It's no biggie!”)          

Mr. Luttman is a fair player and expects that his opponents follow suit.  “I play strictly by the rules on the back of the box,” he said.  He doesn't use a timer, except for one rare instance in which his opponent took “forever.”  “On a timer,” Luttman explained, “each individual is allowed either 26 or 25 minutes.  Then, they get penalized ten points a minute thereafter.”  “This guy took too long, you know?”  Luttman is a self-proclaimed “quick player.” 

But the Scrabble master doesn't take his game too seriously.  He emphasized, “as long as you have fun playing, the outcome doesn't matter.” 

What does matter to him is that you try your best.  This attitude is his Secret to Scrabble Success:  “Never give up.  Even if you're losing in the game, you keep trying.  Even if you know you can't win, you keep trying!  And sometimes there are games that surprise you, that you didn't think you could win.  Even if you're losing by a hundred, you still play hard.” 

Luttman has more tricks of the trade he's willing to share.  “You never open up a triple for your opponent.  You gotta play offense/defense,”  he explains.  He advises that aspiring Scrabble champions, “Buy Scrabble books, get the two-letter words down.  Get 'em down pat.  And study as many words as you can.  Within a short period of time, you can become better.” 

When Luttman's not playing Scrabble, he's all for telling jokes.  He has the art down pat: “You have to pause, you know, slow down.  Be dramatic.  You gotta get it really right.”  When he's walking you through a joke, Luttman adopts the tone of one commentating an exciting sports game.  He finds his jokes “all over the place” and “mix[es] them up,” keeping only “the best.”  “I like being goofy.”  He says.  “It's fun!” 

Luttman's fancy for silliness makes him wonderfully suited for the role of Santa Claus, a part he has filled in The Bean for the past three years.  One of the best bits of our interview was when a tiny tot with curly hair marched up to the Scrabble champ/Santa and, as little children so often do, asked a question. 

“Santa Clause, do you have a swed to go up in the sky?” 

To which Mr. Claus replied, “Do I ever go up to the sky?  Well, yeah, at times.”     

“Can you bring me some presents?” the boy entreated.

“Well, is it Christmas time yet?”


“No, no, it's not now.” said Santa.

“Sooon it will.”

“Yeah, you're right. In a few months, it'll be Christmas again.  Four more months.”

“Yeah. And you will go up to the sky...”


“And..and..and...bring me some more trains.” the kid beamed his most winsome toothy smile.  “Okay?”

“Okay, gotcha!”

The tot had some more business to take care of.  “Where's your sled?”

“My sled is up in the North Pole.  Way up there where it's cold and snowy.”

“No, it's not snowy today!  Where is your car?”

“I don't have a car.”


“I have a bike.  I like riding my bike on the island.” said Luttman. 

This is when the youngster noticed me (“Who's that?”) and I asked him how old he was. 

“I'm not this many!” he pronounced, holding up two fingers.  “And what's your number?” he turned to Mr. Luttman.

“What's old am I, you mean?  Sixty-three!” 

Satisfied by the interview he had just conducted with Santa, the fellow toddled off. 

“Yeah, I played Santa Claus here the last three years.” said Luttman.  “So he knows me as Santa.” 

John's appreciation of community, Scrabble, jokes, and good company exhibits his ability to value the little things in life.  Truly, “there is...much goodness and ingenuity in a raindrop [or a wooden tile bearing a  letter].” as George Lichtenberg once said. The two simple words that have inspired Nantucket's own Scrabble aficionado over the years?  “Think positive.”  

John Luttman's Favorite Jokes

A guy goes over his friend's house.  He sees his friend playing Scrabble with his dog.  He's amazed!  He watches them.  The dog licks his paw.  He puts it in the bag, mixes it around, pulls it out.  Three tiles are stuck to his paw.  He places them on a rack.  Then the dog licks his paw again, puts it in the bag, mixes it around, pulls it out, four tiles are stuck to his paw.  He places those on the rack.  Then, the dog stares at his rack.  Then, he licks both paws, and mixes up his tiles.  The guy's thinking, 'This is a pretty smart dog!' Then the dog licks his paws again!  And he comes down onto his rack, picks up all seven lettars, places them on the board.  A seven-letter word for fifty extra points!  The guy turns to his friend, and he says, 'You got the smartest dog I ever seen!'  And his friend says, 'He ain't that smart!'  I beat him three out of five games!

What's the longest word in the dictionary?

Smiles.  Because there's a mile between the “s”'s.


Have you heard about the dogs who are talking?  Well, anyway, two dogs are talkin'!  The first dog tells the second dog, “My name is Duke! What's your name?” 

Second dog says, “I'm not quite sure!  But I think it's either, “Sit!” or “Stay!”


Why did the computer miss school?

Because it had a virus!

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