By now, everybody is familiar with the images in the Rider-Smith-Waite Tarot. After all, they’re the images that cemented the symbolism of tarot, and virtually every other deck since has used those cards as a basis for its own images. But no matter how well you know the Rider-Smith-Waite (RSW) Tarot, you’ll see them in a whole new light in the new Smith-Waite Borderless Tarot from US Games.
For this deck, US Games has sought to depict the images as accurately to Pamela Colman Smith’s original work as possible. It might seem hyperbolic to call the end result “transcendent”, but that’s really what we have here. The artwork here is pristine and clear, avoiding the overly-mimeographed quality that can sometimes come from the standard RSW. There is almost no color bleed here, the lines and text are cleaner, and the overall color palette is warmer and more muted. The images possess a timeless quality while also having a kind of charming antiquity. The cards could easily be used as a prop for a high-budget period film right out the box.
One of the nicest elements of the deck is the card backs. Instead of the harsh, crisscrossing lines of the standard RSW deck, the Smith-Waite has a rich green back with a white rose in the center. Astute observers will note that it’s the same white rose from the flag on the Death card. In the corners of the back are Smith’s signature, giving the deck a distinct ownership. Waite may have told Smith what to illustrate, but this deck is more hers than his.
But no matter how beautiful the cards are, what’s important is how it reads, and the Smith-Waite reads beautifully. Even for those of us who don’t necessarily connect with the RSW, this deck reads very easily, having an accessible and open kind of energy. The lack of borders also helps to bring the artwork front and center, emphasizing the composition and structure of the symbols on each card. The one drawback to reading with the deck is the cardstock. While sturdy and fine, the cards are rather thick and slick right out of the box. You may need to do some extra shuffling to loosen them up and read on a good, velvet mat to make sure the cards don’t slide around.
One of the deck’s most interesting features is the addition of four cards depicting other artwork by Smith. Several of these were included as postcards in US Games’ previously-released Smith-Waite Commemorative box set. The Little White Book inside the deck does not assign a divinatory meaning to any of the cards, and they are not given a number or place in the deck itself. However, there’s no reason that they can’t be incorporated into the deck for readings. Each of the cards’ art was inspired by a corresponding piece of music or theatre from sources as diverse as Schumann, Stravinsky, and George William Russell. Like the rest of the cards in the deck, these four pieces have multiple layers of meaning that can be explored. The meaning of each card is therefore left up to the reader, giving an extra personal edge to any readings done with them.
The Smith-Waite deck is, frankly, a gorgeous addition to any tarot enthusiast’s library. While it may initially seem to be just another variation on the most common and popular deck of all time, it is in reality its own thing. Softer, but somehow more resonant than the original, and equal parts nostalgia and reinvention, it’s a great deck for beginners and veterans alike.