I am still not sure of the meaning of the expression "play to," even though I have asked this question once before. It seems to me that there are two meanings, namely, 1) to try to please or win over, as in, "play to the gallery," and 2) to take advantage of, as in "Saddam Hussein played to religion." Am I correct?
Yes, more or less. But your second meaning is a consequence of the first. Literally "play to" means "appeal to".
"I played to their patriotism" -- I appealed to their patriotism so that they would support me. OR I did everything I could not to insult their patriotism. OR My actions made their patriotic nature happy.
"To take advantage of" can be expressed more directly by "play on". In coming to power, Hitler played on economic insecurity and ethnic intolerance. The military buildup played on the population's fears of conquest.
There is also the expression "prey on", which carries your second meaning very strongly.
"I preyed on their patriotism" -- I made their patriotism work to my advantage, whether what I did was to their advantage or not.
PS "To prey on" has the usual direct meaning of "to act as a predator upon [the prey]". The wolf preys on the sheep. "The preacher preyed on young women in his adoring flock" -- from the Telegraph.
Last edited by abaka; 30-Jan-2009 at 01:08. Reason: added postscript and "play on"