Jason Zahler: Rowan’s pinball wizard

Jason Zahler with his first place trophy at a main event in Delaware. - Photo / Steve Zahler

Rowan freshman Jason Zahler is the second-ranked pinball player in the world according to the International Flipper Pinball Association (IFPA). Following his victory at the 2023 Mid-Atlantic Pinball Open in Delaware on March 5, he yearns for the number one spot this June, facing the best competition during the IFPA World Championship in Germany. 

Zahler, 18, has been flipping and catching high scores competitively since he was seven years old, yet he recalls playing on his first machine when he was just two. His father, Steve Zahler, also plays competitively.

“When I was literally two and a half years old, my dad got this Addams Family pinball machine, which I’ve been playing forever,” Zahler said. “We still have it, but that’s really what started pinball for me, like as a hobby.”

Zahler’s father would remove the glass off of the machines in order to train the young pinballer, “like a coach teaches different drills and exercises in sports.”

In a ranking system with a current pool of over 96,000 participants, Zahler’s first hurdle was charting in the top 100. The IFPA looks at five global tournaments as major championships, and the first and only time Zahler has been to one was in 2018, which also was the furthest he’d been from home.

“I was playing a lot of time at more local things in Jersey, or like neighboring states,” Zahler said. “But I wasn’t traveling far, the farthest I’d go is like Pittsburgh for the world championship [where] I got 31st out of 900 players — which was a huge thing for me at the time.” 

Since the 2018 Championship in Pittsburgh, Zahler has finished first in 45 competitions, which could have been larger if not for COVID-19 shutting down the competitive pinball scene. His victory in March saw him take down the third-ranked player in the world, all but solidifying his second-place position. 

Akin to a boxer out-performing their local gym, pinball professionals outgrow local tournaments and arcades. Zahler’s father describes his talents as innate, as he tends to pick up on things extremely fast.

“If he wasn’t inherently like that, then all the coaching in the world wouldn’t matter,” his father said.

From small arcades in South Jersey to regional tournaments in Delaware, it wasn’t until Zahler reached Wisconsin’s District 82 in August of 2022 that he knew he was truly elite. He explained that multiple 100-player tournaments occur over a given weekend, providing many opportunities for world-champion pinball players to showcase their skills. Due to the increased level of competition and Zahler’s consistent success, he vaulted into the top 10 by the new year. 

At six years old Zahler was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, a chronic gastrointestinal illness. Thanks to his parents’ consistent research and direction, he made the decision to study nutrition to help him understand and learn from his circumstances. Although, there may be additional motives to his major selection.

“There is a connection to pinball,” Zahler said. “I don’t want to talk too much about it. Some of our secrets, you know?”

His father explained that “paying attention to sleep patterns, mindset and meditation” is important because every slight advantage could be the difference come tournament time.

June’s World Championship tournament is located in Echzell, Germany at Freddy’s Pinball Paradise. It’s a familiar site for Zahler’s father, who played at the world championship held there in 2013. It will be the first time Zahler will travel internationally for a tournament. And with the competition at its highest it has ever been, the pressure looms.

“I’m almost always nervous at least before I get going, but when I get comfortable, the pressure goes away,” Zahler said. 

Pinball requires a unique and broad set of skills including reaction time, precision and eye-to-flipper coordination, none of which seem complicated to Zahler.

“I think my playing is intuitive now, I don’t really think about all these things… one of my main weaknesses when playing is if I don’t get a good sleep the night before, if I’m tired, I play terribly.”. 

“The more skill you have, the less luck there is in the game,” his father said.

As his father does research on which German hotels serve continental breakfast, Zahler sets his eyes on being the top-ranked pinball player in the world. Although he has been unable to attend some recent events due to classes, all signs point towards a June takeover, one in which Rowan University will be cheering from 3,900 miles away.

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