Matt, I have enjoyed your About.com articles for quite some time now, and I have decided to answer the below questions in the hopes of someday getting better, myself.
1) How to improve pool skills best? Start with your particular needs and wants.
Some write they want improvement in specific skill areas. In which areas of pool are you most competent, and in which areas are you struggling the most?
Breaking 9-Ball racks, perhaps? Caroms and combinations? Safety play? Consistency at 9-Ball and other games or banking and kicking, etc.?
I am most competent in planning runs. I can typically see what I need to do, in succession, easily. And I am getting better with execution. I can follow, draw, and throw with intention well enough (though not yet with excellence) to get fair shape on my next object ball.
I have learned over the years that making shots is important, but even more important is controlling the cue ball so that the NEXT shot is makeable (or impossible for your opponent)! Making the shots in my plan, in the succession of the plan, and playing to the level I need to in order to follow the plan, is where I need the most help.
--And therefore this About.com GuideSite exists for players just like you, Robert.
I can assist you up front, however, by recommending an article so that you plan tables better without needing to shoot better to win. --Matt Sherman
2) How often do you break-and-run Nine Ball on a 8- or 9-foot table? For example, if you break and there are no challenging clusters or problems on the table, and you take ball-in-hand for the 1-ball, are you certain to run out the whole table to the 9-ball? What percentage is your estimate for running the rack off a good break where there are no obvious challenges in the spread?
I've never broke and run a whole table of balls, even though I have come extremely close. I have lost by running 7 balls in 8-Ball because I wasn't able to finish and sink the black ball! So frustrating.
--I understand your frustration well. The worst thing to do in 8-Ball is sink 7 and leave only the black ball. It's like asking your opponent, "Say, I've cleared all the obstacles from the table for you. Would you like to run the table now or just play me safe?"
Let me try to help if I may. The ball just before the 8-ball is sunk is known as the key ball of the run. When you have a chance to choose your set in 8-Ball, look at the 8-ball first and decide whether stripes or solids gives you the best key ball convenient to the eight. Don't move the key until you need to do so to complete the game!
3) Are your pool skills consistent between tables and do you improve your skills even when playing under changing conditions? Do you play as well on tables when you travel to nearby rooms as you do on your condo's private table?
I feel I am consistent from pool hall to pool hall. It takes a few games to become accustomed to the table cloth speed, and the bumpers and rails, but after that, I can adapt to different styles of play as needed.
4) What kind of league or competitive play if any are you doing now? Do you have a regular outing against friends or strangers in competition? Do you have league handicaps or other pool skill ratings now to assess your play?
I am in two separate APA leagues, both in 8-Ball format. I have played in 7 sessions and practice nearly 30 hours per week. Even though I have dedicated so much of my time, money, and energy to pool, I seem to have plateaued at between a 3 and 4 skill level.
Sure, I can beat a 5, and I've even beat 7 handicaps. But I am looking for the consistency in wins, so that I can move up in skill level. Not exactly good for the team, but I want to move up, for me.
--It's considered fine form to improve and upset your team's handicap for a short while. In a good league of perhaps 15 weeks' duration individual handicaps are reviewed and modified to reflect scoring every 5 weeks or so.
Your teammates will appreciate your courage and leadership if you score more. No worries.
5) Do you have any digital video of your practice you'd like to send demonstrating your pool skill fundamentals?
I do not have any video of me playing, but I have always wanted to record my games. Are there any particular angles I should try to capture for the video? I can see value to evaluate scenes shot from above, straight on, and perpendicular to the shot, but what do you prefer?
--You are exactly right, Robert. Phototaking from above a player can be awkward in certain halls--especially where there are low ceilings or pool lights in the way.
But square on to the player from their front and rear and perpendicular to the player on the side of their shooting arm is ideal, and on shots attempted straight ahead using center ball strokes without sidespin.
6) What other games or practice drills do you enjoy and do regularly beside 8- or 9-Ball?
I have started recently running drills such as the ones I've attached to you by e-mail. I think the "napkin drill," however, requires some further detail in instruction because I have a lot of trouble with that one!
--I can understand that problem and fix it for you. A player of your skill level ought to use an 8½" x 11" sheet of paper instead (or A4 paper in British countries, which is an even larger target).
For those readers unfamiliar with this drill, take a sheet of paper, place it wherever you wish on the pool table, than cue an object ball into some pocket with the goal of bringing the cue ball to rest on the paper. An 8½" x 11" sheet provides nearly 95 square inches of target for the cue ball to land upon.
A skilled player, by contrast, will shoot toward a round, six-inch diameter target (about 29 sq. inches of space). And a professional wants to bring their cue ball to land on target the size of a U.S. quarter, which is less than an inch across its width!
And may I recommend to you some exciting drills that are really "anti-drills" to provide you with maximum enjoyment as you increase your skills, and a lot faster than most of the dull drills out there? Here are some of the drill antidotes at this GuideSite:
7) Are you enjoying a private table or do you struggle with aspects of a custom table such as cloth speed or action of the rails?
Like I wrote, I don't have my own table, but I typically play at the same table at my home pool hall, and it is fairly well maintained. I like it just fine, but I like to be able to play on a variety of tables to practice different speeds and rail actions.
--That is wise. A lot of players get into a billiards rut by never checking their play on different speed cloths and different size tables. Here's some advice if you do choose to buy a table or simply want to test a table you're playing on.
8) Would you rate yourself now as a semi-pro player or as a highly skilled amateur perhaps? What kind of commitment and pro training do you think you might need to play at a pro's skill level?
I say that the difference between pro and amateur play is the aspect of money. I do not play for money, but would if I thought I would win, consistently, when I needed to win.
Also, not having much "throw away" money to start out with keeps me from gambling. I am a very strong skill level 3 that is playing on the skill level 4+ range. I never sandbag my handicap, I always try to win. Sometimes I think the pressure that I put on myself to win actually turns out to be negative, and I choke in the moment of truth.
In answer to your question, I would say that I am a highly skilled amateur with loads of potential.
--Good thoughts there. When you can run four or five balls most every time you take on a 9-Ball or 8-Ball table, you are ready for some action on the road. And league players everywhere hate sandbaggers and appreciate honest competitors.
9) Anything else you'd like to mention about your goals, which I might find helpful in training you? I have students who play pro now but want to win more often (or dominate their league or go to Las Vegas with their amateur team, etc.). Others have played in leagues but never for cash and want just to prepare to crush the competition at lower levels of the game.
I would like to know if there is anything I can do immediately that will help me improve to a pool skill level 4 or 5, in the league, and play like a 6 or a 7? I would love to get that Vegas trip... but winning in Vegas... now we're talking!
--I would start with the non-drill drills I've outlined under question #6 above. Definitely. Then let's chat some more and go from there.
10) Any other questions you can think of that I can answer?
Do you ever set up clinics in my area (Washington, DC metro area) or do you recommend a pro that does? Thank you for your time.
--I do. I can keep you posted on my travels, though I enjoy DC but cannot get to visit there nearly as often as I'd like.
Keep checking, readers on the massive trove of pool and billiards instructional articles and watch as your pool skills improve. I've posted numerous articles in recent months on stroke, stance, aim, bank and jump shots, and much more.