All the Luck in the World

If you'd been struck by lightning 600 times, would you wonder if God was after you?

Everyone has a system when it comes to the lottery. Some people like to play their birth date, or their children's ages. Others consult their astrological chart. I took another tack recently and drove 200 miles to Beaver Meadows, Penn. At Bernie's Variety Mart, an undistinguished drive-up store on the main road to Hazleton, between Scranton and Allentown, I bought a half dozen Super 6 tickets. According to the state of Pennsylvania, my odds of winning that night's $14 million prize were pathetic: 1 in 39,959,158. What the lottery didn't factor in was the man who'd be picking the numbers--Joe Hornick Sr., holder of perhaps the luckiest lottery-winning streak ever.

Since 1989, Hornick, a 67-year-old Catholic and semi-retired owner of a home heating-oil business, has hit four jackpots--three with tickets from Bernie's Variety Mart--for a total of almost $3 million. In June, the Cash 5 paid him $206,217. Three weeks later, still waiting for his previous check, Joe hit the Cash 5 again, for $71,037. The odds of winning the Cash 5 just once are 1 in 575,757. Joe has now hit it three times. (Four years ago, he struck for $68,000.) Oh, and last April, Joe asked his nephew to buy him a ticket in Florida while there on business. Joe won $6,673.

Joe, who still plays the lottery daily, rarely spends more than $40 a week on tickets.


In his 1988 book, "Innumeracy: Mathematical Illiteracy and Its Consequences," John Allen Paulos calculates that choosing just six numbers from 1 to 40, a person can come up with 3,838,380 possible combinations--seemingly an abstract task, but not to the millions who play state-sponsored lotteries every week. This means the odds of picking a winning six are staggeringly poor (and go up with every additional number: Joe's first and biggest win, a $2.5 million Super 7 in 1989, defied 6-million-to-1 odds). Paulos goes on to note that someone, however improbably, does win, and often. But what are the odds that the winner will be the same guy, so many times?

"A math professor once calculated the odds of all my wins," Joe tells me, his voice booming over the phone after, much to my surprise, I found him listed in the phone book. "And he said it'd be like the same person getting struck by lightning 600 times!"

Some wish lightning would strike Joe. When asked what he attributed his luck to, Joe used to claim it was "divine intervention." He explained to "Today" show host Matt Lauer, after his second jackpot this summer: "I've got the Lord on my side." The response of the righteous was swift and fierce. "I got a flood of calls and letters," Joe says, "people telling me I'm going to hell for using God to win the lottery."

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