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Pinball Wizards: Father, Son Put Their All Into The Silver Ball

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) – It's time to celebrate Father's Day once again.

While a card is great, what's really meaningful is the relationship.

As CBS2's Steve Overmyer reports in this week's Snapshot New York, a simple game of lights and noise helped one family make a meaningful connection.

"I can't think of anything better to bring a family together or to bring a father and his children together than pinball," Steve Zahler told Overmyer.

pinball father son duo, Snapshot NY
In this week's Snapshot New York, a simple game of lights and noise helped one family make a meaningful connection. (CBS2)

The father and son put their all into the silver ball.

"I never would've thought it would have been pinball that would bring us together," son Jason Zahler said.

For most of his adult life, Steve Zahler has been a world-ranked pinball player. Where did his passion for pinball come from?

"My passion is endless," he said. "It started way back from when I was like… way back."

His love for the game caught on with his family, especially his son Jason, who has been a wizard with the flipper since he was two years old.

"Who wouldn't gravitate to a pinball machine? Who wouldn't gravitate to something that plays music, has really cool sound effects, where there's actually something physical to do? It's not like a video game," he said. "There's so much reward and incentive."

Even in a world of video games and virtual reality, the pinball machine stands the test of time.

"There's a lot going on. Underneath the play field, there are over 2,000 parts and at least a half a mile of wire inside each pinball machine," said Steve. "I think the physical nature of it and the randomness of the silver ball really sets it far apart from any video game... With pinball, there are no patterns. The ball is wild."

Pinball machines gained popularity in the 1940s. They were so addictive, Mayor Fiorello La Guardia labeled hem a gambling device and had them banned. Until the late '70s, the machines were illegal.

So pinball went underground and became a symbol of rebellion. That's why Fonzie played pinball and, of course, it was the subject of a rock musical by The Who.

"I think I'm rebellious, I think I am to some extent," Steve said, adding it's possible that's what drew him to pinball.

Overmyer asked Steve what he thinks Mayor La Guardia would say about today's million dollar prizes for pinball tournaments.

"I think he'd have a pretty big problem with it," he replied. "But that is kind of cool, because he got it wrong."

Steve now runs a pinball arcade in the East Village. In the dazzling spectacle, he and his son formed an unbreakable bond.

"I am so much more emotional about the game now that my son is involved," he said. "You know, I think it's that we just have a good time playing it."

"It brings you closer. You can talk about it, you can talk about other things, too. And you're watching each other play, so yeah it's a lot of fun," said Jason.

"We're talking to each other and we're joking maybe about different things that are happening on the play field," Steve added. "It's just a very social experience. I think that's what kids need, well that's what everybody needs, is a good social experience these days."

His coaching helped lift Jason in the rankings. Both are in the top one percent in the world. But Jason's latest win catapulted him above his father.

"Now he's ranked higher, and I am just so proud of this guy, because he won his first major tournament a couple weeks ago with 180 professional pinball players," said Steve.

Those same players were in New York for a big tournament. More than $10,000 in prizes are up for grabs in the New York Pinball Championship.

"This is the best weekend ever," Steve said.

Levin Nayman is the organizer and competitor.

"Basically your goal for a lot of players is to trap up so you have a little time to think," he explained. "It's good to just get the ball at a resting position."

When you have control of the ball, shots are calculated and repeatable.

To win the New York City title, a player must be able to master the new games as well as the classics. Even if they've never played the game before, they're forced to figure it out in live competition.

"It could be a very, very gratuitous or it could be very, very evil," said Steve.

Overmyer asked Steve whether his son is naturally a very physical player.

"He's very physical, he's a very emotional player. I mean, he loves pinball. So of course, he's going to be emotional," he replied. "This isn't fun and games. We have a lot of world champions here today. This is serious stuff."

The Zahlers both made it to the final round, but the ball didn't bounce their way.

The father and son though look at pinball like life – eventually the ball always drops. What counts is what you do while it's in play.

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