2024-05-08
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."

Add to his bum rap that Joe once picked some of his winning numbers from his church bulletin--scripture verses in Jeremiah. "Boy, the flack I got!" he says. "People calling me an immoral blasphemer for using the Bible like that. Some even said God should strike me dead!"

But Dolly, Joe's wife of 46 years, tells me later, over coffee in the Hornick's kitchen, that the reactionaries miss the point. "Joe picking those numbers from the bulletin is no different than the time he got the numbers off an aftershave bottle," she said. "Or when he played four digits in our zip code--and hit 'em."

"But I got tired of the repercussions," says Hornick. "Now I just tell them it's luck--luck, luck, luck!" he says, pounding the table.

That doesn't keep strangers from treating Hornick like a lightning rod. They approach him on the street and ask to rub him for luck--"like I'm the Holy Grail or a wooden Indian," he says.

Ha, you say. But two weeks earlier, Hornick's friend Jerry asked to rub Joe for luck. "So I says, 'Go ahead,' and bent over," says Joe, demonstrating the pose. "He smacked me on the rear, and that night he hit four numbers for \$414." When Jerry called Joe with the good news, he asked for more luck, and that night hit the daily number twice for \$1,000. "He was so bent out of shape on the phone you'd think he won a million." Joe told Jerry to brace himself; luck comes in threes: the following Tuesday, Jerry hit for \$313.

In the Hornicks' hometown of Coxeville, a small, predominantly Catholic working-class town next to Beaver Meadows, faith looms large. The hand of God, not random chance, is generally perceived as determining daily life. At a neighbor's wedding after Joe's first big win, the priest's talk took an odd turn. "He looked straight at us," Dolly says, "and said, 'When you think you're the reason something good has happened to you, just remember. You didn't do anything at all. God did it for you!' Everyone was annoyed he said that to us--during a wedding!"

Hornick's own priest takes a lighter view. He cracked that their house had once been a stable, and that Joe must have stepped in a horse pie.

Joe claims his wins have "not changed my life one iota." He lives in the same modest three-family house where he was born. Cousins and nieces live there too, as well as his two sons and six grandchildren. Rising beyond Joe's backyard is a mountain of shale several stories tall, refuse from what was once a coal mine. He still drives the Subaru he owned before he started hitting.

When I appeared to interview Joe, a stocky, silver-haired guy who could be played by Charles Durning at top volume, he reached into a bag and offered me a fast-food hamburger. "Hell, I don't need surf 'n' turf," Joe said later, working on some fries. "I'm happy with peanut butter and jelly and McDonald's."

"He's being humble when he chalks it up to luck," says Joe Jr. (whose own lottery winnings over 20 years total \$40). "He's worked hard all his life, and he's been very kind to people. Even before he won the lottery, he's always given money to the community, and he's never wanted to be recognized for it. I believe he's being rewarded for the way he's lived his life. If you're religious, you might call that God."

If so, God doesn't only play lotto. After appearing on "Today," Joe took his cousin to Atlantic City to celebrate. Joe played the slots and went home \$2,200 richer. Two weeks later, he returned to Atlantic City and came out \$2,600 ahead. "But that's nothing!" Joe barks, leaning across the table to swat me on the shoulder. "Two years ago Dolly won \$9,970 off one pull at Bally's. Four years before that, she won \$10,700 off a quarter at the Sands, went right next door to Bally's and won \$2,000!"

Joe points out that his winnings don't go as far as most people think. After taxes, the annuity from his \$2.5 million winner comes to \$85,000. He passes much of that on to relatives. "I sent my grandkids through private Catholic school, all six of them," he says. "The oldest one's in college. They all had braces, at \$5,000 each. My grandson's car just got out of the garage. The bill's \$184, and I have to pay it. This year was different because I won two other jackpots, but by the time April comes, I usually need a little luck."

It's odd to hear a lottery prodigy like Joe wishing for more luck. But at one point, Joe leaves the kitchen and comes back with a stack of letters--hard luck stories from around the world asking for handouts. One, written in German, included a doctor's diagnosis. A letter from upstate New York, accompanied by a program from a memorial service, read: "I too play the lottery trying to keep our head over the water. I won't give up. I can't. I believe prayer changes things.and when you said only God knows about your future winnings, I hope God knows when me and my mother will one day be blessed. ." Joe does not answer these letters.

Nonetheless, Joe obliges when I ask if he'll come with me to Bernie's to buy a few tickets. Still, Joe isn't one to squander his luck. We agree that he'll pick six sets of numbers and we'd each play them--"so we share it in case the numbers hit."

Bernie's is just like any other corner store except for three big blow-ups of winning lottery checks hanging behind the counter, all signed to Joseph J. Hornick Sr. As a woman ran the cards, I asked Joe if he expected to take another jackpot someday. "I hope I do," he answered. "I feel that I will once more before I croak." He paused. "And this time, I'll stuff the money in my pocket and run away before anybody hears about it."

I left wondering if Joe's winnings are a blessing or a curse. When I got home, I logged onto Pennsylvania's lottery website and checked our numbers-nothing. Of course I was disappointed. But I also considered what it might be like to be Joe-an object of such weird envy, scorn and improbable hope--and whether it's not luckier to lose.

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