Resilience Defined: Sheddy Siddiqui Raising His Two Boys #ForCathy
Most of the world's best poker players are in Las Vegas right now, hunkered down at the World Series of Poker, playing every day, rattling chips and chasing bracelets just as they do every single summer. There's one familiar face missing this year though; Mohammad Siddiqui.
His friends - and there are a lot of them – affectionately know him as just Sheddy.
Over the last few summers, Sheddy has spent quite a bit of time at the Rio as one of those thousands of players chasing those bracelets. During the rest of the year he's a regular at the Seminole Hard Rock in Hollywood, Florida where he plays most of the tournaments and a decent selection of some of the juicy cash games that Florida has a reputation for.
Back in March, while grinding away at one of the cash games at Seminole, Sheddy's life - and the lives of Zach and Shane, his two young boys - took a sudden turn, and it had nothing to do with a single card.
Tuesday, March 14, 2017 started like any other day in the Siddiqui household. Six-year-old Zach and 11-year-old Shane were off to school. Sheddy was heading to Seminole Hard Rock Hollywood to play cash games and Cathy, the matriarch of the family, was going to her job at DHL, where she was a manager. She was only going to work a half-day though.
“We were texting back and forth because we were getting ready to redo the kitchen, so she was going out, doing some research and trying to find some stuff that we both like, so we can go ahead and get the ball rolling and get it over with,” said Sheddy. “I get a phone call from her phone. I had my headphones on, they’re Bluetooth, so I just kind of answer the phone as I looked at my hand and it was the emergency medics saying, ‘Do you know Cathy?’”
The voice on the other end of the call explained that Cathy had been found unresponsive and they thought she’d had a seizure and they were taking her to the hospital. The next few minutes are a blur for Sheddy now. With his heart pounding, he jammed his chips into his bookbag and began sprinting from the poker room, which was outside of the actual casino, through the casino to the valet, where he waited for his car.
Arriving at the hospital a minute or two before the ambulance, Sheddy was greeted by Cathy’s oldest sister, Michelle, and was placed in a waiting room with other family members, including Zach and Shane. After waiting for a little more than 30 minutes, the doctor came to talk to Sheddy.
“(He) told me that they’ve done everything to try to resuscitate her and she’s not responsive, but if I wanted, they would try it again in front of me, and I said, ‘Yeah, of course’,” remembered Sheddy.
Nothing worked. At around 5:15 pm doctors pronounced the 39-year-old mother of two dead of a heart attack. There was nothing in Cathy’s medical history that would have predicted this. Both her cardiologist and general physician had no explanations for Sheddy and he was left with questions which he’ll never have answers to. In the immediate moment though, his attention turned to Zach and Shane.
“Probably the hardest thing I’ve had to do,” Sheddy said, of having to tell them their mother was gone. “And I didn’t know whether to let them see her or not. I just really didn’t know what to do. They were on a bench outside in the emergency waiting area and I just asked them and they said yes. So, I took them in and they said their goodbyes and we went from there.”
Cathy was the only girlfriend that Sheddy had ever had. They began dating while still in high school. Cathy was a sophomore and Sheddy was a freshman.
“Yeah, she robbed the cradle,” joked Sheddy.“We had a debate class together. The first time we met was in class and throughout the school year, you know, obviously we saw each other for school and then we started to become friendly and then, I guess, as they say, one thing led to another.”
They married in 1999 and seven years later, Shane turned the couple into a family. Zachary, born in 2010, was the last addition.
In the chaos that followed Cathy’s passing, Sheddy rarely had a quiet moment to himself. The only exception was at night, after the kids had been tucked in, he found himself alone with his thoughts and missing the love of his life.
“I mean, I didn’t really sleep much, so the mind wanders when you don’t sleep. It was just impossible to really sleep for a little while,” admitted Sheddy. It was during those sleepless nights that he would remember Cathy, get angry over what happened and always ended up staring down the same reality. “Just knowing that she’s not coming back.”
While Sheddy was dealing with all of that and trying to figure out what the future held for him and the boys, some of his fellow poker players mobilized. Natasha Mercier, Loni Harwood and Jessica Dawley were trying to figure out the best way to offer Sheddy some sort of support.
“My first thought was ‘What can I send him? How can I help?’ And I was in a group chat with Jessica Dawley and Loni Harwood and I was like ‘What can I do? I don’t know what the customs are here’,” said Mercier. “Loni was like ‘I think GoFundMe is the easiest way to help’. So I started setting it up, she helped me write good English paragraphs, we picked the picture. That’s how it started.”
The campaign was launched on March 15 with the goal of raising $20,000 to help Sheddy handle funeral expenses and what was sure to be time away from poker. Through social media, the campaign hit its goal within 15 hours. The final tally ended up being just a shade over $26,000. A separate campaign, started by some of Cathy’s co-workers at DHL, raised an additional $12,000.
“Even though I’m good friends with a lot of the top pros, I’m not Jason Mercier. I’m not Daniel Negreanu,” said Sheddy. “I’m the little guy in the scheme of things and I understand that and I’m fine with that. Apparently the poker community was just absolutely totally giving and I certainly appreciate it on behalf of me and my boys.”
The money allowed Sheddy to focus on helping his boys through the transition and not worry about getting back to work until he was ready.
“I was very, very grateful. I was very moved by it and I was very thankful. They truly made a difference and the money helped and allowed me to have a little freedom,” said Sheddy, “Mukul (Pahuja) has also been very supportive. He definitely extended his arm very generously.”
While the money has eased a huge burden for Sheddy, since he and his wife were both born-and-raised in Florida, family has surrounded him and the boys at every turn.
“The families have been great. Her family, they live 15 minutes away and my parents live 15 minutes away and so the support has been really helpful and very strong, which has certainly made some really tough things a lot easier,” said Sheddy.
Shane and Zach stayed home from school for about a week after their mom passed. During that week though, Sheddy found himself facing a challenge that no parenting book has a chapter on.
“I didn’t know how to react. I couldn’t call on anything that I’ve ever gone through to help me get through it,” said Sheddy. “They were very sad, a lot of questions, but obviously, just like myself, disbelief. Mostly those emotions.”
With five years difference between the brothers, Shane had a better understanding of the finality of Cathy’s death. At first, Zach was a different story.
“He kind of felt like, ‘Okay, well, when is she going to get better?’” said Sheddy.
Both boys were extremely close with their mother, so Sheddy never felt he had to emphasize to either of them just how much Cathy loved them.
“They had a really good relationship, really close,” said Sheddy.“I think they already knew that she was just an amazing mom.”
When it came time for them to go back to school, Sheddy discovered another amazing support system ready and willing to do everything they could for Shane and Zach – the school itself, Chapel Trails Elementary.
“That time period kind of just all rolled into one really. We were all still mourning, but I wanted to try to get them back into some sort of normalcy. However little it would be,” said Sheddy. “The school was amazing, they were great. It’s a public school, a really good school, but it definitely felt like a private school with all the attention and care and supervision that went on.”
In the last few weeks both boys have hit major milestones in their young lives. Shane celebrated fifth grade graduation while his younger brother finished kindergarten. Shane finished a very difficult year with straight A’s and made the Superintendent’s Honor Roll.
It’s also meant that Sheddy has been able to keep himself busy with school functions for his boys, but celebrating his boys’ successes alone has been difficult.
“Very bittersweet is the best way to put it. You know, it’s great that they’re doing well, but terrible she’s not here to see it,” said Sheddy.
It wasn’t just the classroom where the boys have excelled. Shane started playing soccer just four years ago, but in the last year or so has seen his development take off. In May he made a U12 travel team for the first time.
“He’s been playing like recreational and intramurals and now he was fortunate enough to make a traveling team, so next season he’ll be playing with the big boys so to speak,” said Sheddy.
Both boys love soccer, something they get from their dad, who played a lot of soccer while growing up. Zach admires Lionel Messi while Shane looks up to Neymar Jr. During the 2016 WSOP, Sheddy went out of his way to meet Neymar Jr. and get him to autograph a Barcelona jersey for Shane.
After busting a tournament, Sheddy headed back to the townhouse he was renting when he saw some talk on Twitter that Neymar Jr. was at the Rio, palling around with some Brazilian poker pros. He reached out to some people he knew at the Rio to see if they thought it would be possible to get an autograph for his son and after being convinced there was at least a small chance, Sheddy jumped back in his car and drove to the Rio, stopping at a local Nike store first, hoping they had a Barcelona jersey or, failing that, a soccer ball.
Through some mutual friends, Sheddy found himself talking to Neymar Jr. and getting that highly coveted autograph. He then jumped on Facetime with Shane to show him the jersey and relay the story to him.
“I felt like the best dad in the world, I can’t even lie, I felt pretty fucking good,” said Sheddy.
A few weeks later Sheddy, Cathy, Shane and Zach were all in Las Vegas together, celebrating Father’s Day with a trip to Topgolf. The plans this year are different, and don’t at all involve Las Vegas. He and the boys are in New York City, visiting his sister. His parents are also joining them. Nothing specific planned for Father’s Day, other than being surrounded by family.
Looking back at the last three months, Sheddy can’t help but be impressed with just how well the boys have responded to the tragedy and thinks their strength has helped him every day. Sheddy's social media accounts are full of pictures of both boys doing things that kids are supposed to be doing at 11 and six years old. School photos, soccer games, trips out on the town with dad, and each time he's added the hashtag #ForCathy.
“Quite frankly, they’re doing better than I am. They’re pretty resilient. It’s helped me personally,” said Sheddy. Being hyper-focused on the boys over the last three months, Sheddy has seen a lot of Cathy in each of his boys.
“They just like to have fun. They always want to smile. They like to try new things. They care about people,” said Sheddy. “They’re not selfish, as kids can be sometimes. They’re just really genuine, which is basically how she was also.”
The financial swings that come with being a professional poker player aren’t something that everybody understands. Being married to a professional poker player and accepting those ups and downs isn’t easy. Before he started playing professionally though, Sheddy worked in another industry that has its owns share of peaks and valleys - particularly in South Florida - real estate.
It was while he was helping an investor find properties to flip that he started getting into poker.
“The Hard Rock opened and I started going there once in a while. I was still in the real estate business at that point and I’m the type of person that, when I get into something, I kind of get all the way into it,” said Sheddy.
As he began to play more and more poker, Cathy never objected to any of it, knowing that Sheddy would always have his family in mind when it came to making decisions.
“She didn’t mind at first, as a hobby. Just as long as she didn’t feel any repercussions negatively, financially,” said Sheddy.
His desire to want to be better at everything he does lead Sheddy to a final table in a smaller buy-in event at Seminole and it was that small taste of success that had him wondering about giving up real estate to play full time.
“It was a $130 or $150 tournament with rebuys, back when rebuys were a thing,” said Sheddy. “I ended up chopping it heads up and so that was kind of when the light bulb went off, ‘Okay, maybe you’re not so bad at this. Maybe there’s a future in this’.”
With the real estate market cooling off and business slowing down, Sheddy found himself playing more and more poker as a means of providing for his family. There was no singular moment where he decided to move on though.
“It kind of just happened. It wasn’t like one day or one week where I was like, ‘Okay, fine. I’m done with (real estate)’,” said Sheddy. “When I wasn’t putting in effort into real estate, I was putting it into poker.”
Pretty soon, Sheddy was playing both tournaments and cash games on the regular and poker just became a full time thing. It wasn’t always easy, bet Sheddy says Cathy never told him he had to go get a real job or get back into real estate, even after Cathy got laid off from her own job.
“I was dealing a private game here and there and playing and we were on food stamps and she never complained,” said Sheddy. “She was always my rock. She’s always been there.”
With a support system like that behind him, the more Sheddy played, the more success he found. He’s now won a shade more than $1.26 million in his career, highlighted by a few big scores.
He won an $1,650 buy-in event at Seminole in 2013, had a deep run in the 2012 WSOP Main Event for his first six-figure score and then finished fifth in the WSOP Millionaire Maker in 2015 for $333,038. But there’s one score that stands out for a reason that has less to do with the eventual result (his second biggest score) and more to do with the things that matter most to him - family.
Last May, he made his way through 365 other players to get heads-up in a $1,650 buy-in Seminole Hard Rock Deep Stack event and chopped it for $110,000 before eventually finishing second. Cathy, who normally didn't sweat her husband in-person, was on the rail this time, cheering Sheddy on. The moment was immortalized in a photo taken by Lukas Willems for the Seminole blog.
"That's my favorite picture. At least anything poker-wise, that's my favorite picture. Nothing else is close. That was the first time she ever came to a final table," said Sheddy.
Getting back to the grind of playing regularly hasn’t been a priority for Sheddy. All of his energy has gone towards making sure the boys are settling in to a new reality. In April, the Seminole Hard Rock Hollywood held its annual Seminole Hard Rock Poker Showdown series and Sheddy, a Seminole Hard Rock sponsored pro, made his way back to the casino for the first time since March 14 to play in a few of the bigger events.
“I usually play pretty much everything. I ended up (just) playing the $3,500 main event and the $10,000 (high roller). I didn’t play anything else,” said Sheddy, who estimates he plays between $100,000 and $125,000 worth of tournament buy-ins in a given year. He gave it his all in both events, but given everything that had happened to him, he admits now he just wasn’t ready to play again.
“It was incredibly difficult to focus. I appreciated all of the well wishes and sympathy, I was very grateful for that, but just mentally I didn’t want to be there. And it wasn’t that I didn’t want to be at Seminole, it’s just that I didn’t want to be around any of that just yet,” admitted Sheddy.
Now that the boys are done their school year though, Sheddy has started getting back into the swing of playing again. In the last two weeks he’s begun playing regularly again but his approach has changed, because it has to.
“I’m going to be transitioning more towards cash over tournaments to a certain degree. Mainly because my time instantly became more valuable all of a sudden obviously,” said Sheddy. “As far as full time, it might not be the typical, you know 35, 45, 50 hours a weeks playing cash. I’d be happy if I can carve out a four-day-a-week schedule, five to eight hours a day.”
And while he’s had to skip the bulk of the WSOP schedule this year, in early July he is heading to Las Vegas to play the Main Event. The boys will be staying with their grandparents, Cathy’s parents, and might be hitting up DisneyWorld. While Shane and Zach won’t be coming out with him, as they have in years past, Sheddy knows that he’s going to be playing with Cathy’s memory driving him.
“She was definitely the best thing that ever happened to me. I felt so happy to be with her. She was very giving,” said Sheddy. “She was my biggest fan. She adored her kids. She adored me and she was happy. She was really happy.”
Photos provided by Drew Amato (WPTDeepstacks), Lukas Willems (Seminole Hard Rock), Siddiqui family.