ASK THE MASTER: "When you are going to play on a table you haven't played on before, is there a series of shots that a person can take to see how the table plays?"
You have arrived at the event location and want to check out the equipment before you compete. What should you do? Much of what matters can be observed without shooting a ball. Let's look at some of that first.
The cloth – Is it fast cloth (no nap, not fuzzy, you can see threads) or slow (fuzzy, thick). How worn is it? New cloth is slipperier, so spin carries farther, balls don't grab the cushions well (not as much english effect). How dirty is the cloth? Are there any serious problems with the cloth, e.g., holes, loose, divot at the foot spot?
The rails – Feel the cushions all the way around the table. Are there any spots where the cloth is loose, or the rubber is loose? Is the cloth tight in some spots? Bounce a ball off the cushions, working around the table, listening for "dead spots." Try some simple kicks with a rolling cueball. Does the table bank neutral, long, or short? I see Brunswick Gold Crowns as neutral, meaning a geometric kick with a rolling ball goes in the pocket. Diamond "red label" tables tend to bank short, and the newer "blue label" Diamonds are neutral. Sight down each long rail. Do the side pocket point and the two rail segments align properly? Sometimes one side pocket point sticks out farther than the other.
The pockets – How tight are the corner pockets? Take two balls and put them in the throat of the pocket and see whether there is room for them to drop or do they jam in the pocket. Look at the pocket facings (jaws). Are they shimmed? Are they flat? Sometimes you'll see a concave jaw. That is not going to be a friendly pocket.
The cueball – If you are playing on a barbox, you may be using a cueball that's different from the object balls, so the table knows to let that ball come out every time. If your ball is larger or heavier than the object balls, the physics of ball behavior is different. How worn out, beat up, sticky, and out of round is the cueball? The cleaner, smoother, and shinier the ball is, the less friction. The less friction, the less throw and the more consistent the behavior. Cueballs wear out from the constant impacts with chalked tips. They get smaller. They get out of round. You can place the cueball between two object balls and roll all three under a straight area of your stick to see whether the cueball is smaller than the other balls. If so, it will draw easier and not follow as well. And on a stun shot, it will bounce back a bit relative to the stun line. Conversely, an oversize/overweight cueball will require a little draw to produce a stun or stop shot.
The object balls – Are they a recognizable, high quality brand, such as Super Aramith Pro's or Brunswick Centennials? How dull and worn out are they? Are they all from the same set?
Now we want to get a sense of the table's speed and flatness, and the friendliness of the pockets. Let's hit some balls.
Speed – We teach a special shot at pool school for determining the speed of any table, for you. Other than that, I suggest shooting a speed shot you have practiced, such as the lag shot. Shoot the lag until it's working for you, and then assume you have the speed of the table. I also suggest shooting some super-soft shots. Try to just barely make it to the pocket. This will give you a sense of how far things roll.
Flatness – If you're playing on a table with slow, fuzzy cloth, it's not likely to roll as true as one with faster, thinner cloth, due to tiny inconsistencies in the thickness and composition of the cloth. To check whether various areas of the playing surface are off level, line up and freeze three balls together. Shoot softly, straight at the cluster and observe the roll of the ball. If you see a ball roll off, but it doesn't happen every time, that particular ball may be out of round or out of balance. If there are areas of the playing surface that don't roll true, you'll know to either shoot harder in that direction or "play the break" like a golfer hitting a putt.
Pocket friendliness – Even if a table has tight pockets, you still should be able to slam a ball pretty hard down the rail and have the pocket accept it. Shoot your cueball parallel to the cushion and see how much speed the pocket will accept.
If circumstances allow, warm up on that table. In any case, when you can, closely observe the ball action on that table as others play. Observe and remember. Those little things you noticed about the equipment can certainly matter. One less miss or one more make can make the difference in winning or losing. Don't fight the equipment. Adjust your play to work with whatever pros & cons the equipment presents.