Who is Stronger in the Center?

The second round of the Tashkent Grand Prix tournament saw only one decisive game.
A game that I liked (ChessBase 12)

[Event "Tashkent FIDE GP"]
[Site "Tashkent UZB"]
[Date "2014.10.22"]
[Round "2"]
[White "Vachier Lagrave, M."]
[Black "Kasimdzhanov, R."]
[Result "1-0"]
[ECO "C65"]
[WhiteElo "2757"]
[BlackElo "2706"]
[Annotator "Bojkov, Dejan"]
[PlyCount "71"]
[EventDate "2014.10.20"]

1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bb5 Nf6 {An invitation to a Berlin Defense.} 4. d3 {
Rejected. Black is doing too well here these days.} Bc5 5. Nbd2 {A rather
fresh line. According to my Megabase there are only 31 games played so far,
but the quality of the players who tried it as White is very high: Carlsen,
Aronian, Giri, Adams...} d6 6. O-O ({One of the ideas of the early knight
sortie is to maneuver in Steinitz style with} 6. Nf1 {However in that case the
simple} Ng4 {diverts the white knight from the g3 square and Black is very
solid.} 7. Ne3 O-O 8. O-O Nxe3 9. Bxe3 Bxe3 10. fxe3 Be6 {Inarkiev,E (2669)
-Ponomariov,R (2733) Astrakhan 2010}) 6... Bd7 {The most natural move turns
out to be a novelty. Kasimdzhanov does not want to allow the doubling of the
pawns on c6 and completes the development. This move cannot be bad.} 7. c3 O-O
8. Nc4 $5 {[%csl Rb6,Gc4,Yc5,Ye5][%cal Gb2b4,Ga2a4,Ga4a5,Rc4b6,Gc4e5,Gf3e5]
Diagram [#] A typical idea for the Italian game. These two are cousins though.
In the Italian positions the white light-squared bishop is placed on b3.} h6 {
Useful prophylaxys.} ({The position of the bishop on b5 gives an additional
idea to White:} 8... a6 9. Bxc6 Bxc6 10. Na5 {This will regain the bishop pair
and double the black pawns, as} Qd7 11. Bg5 {looks awkward for Black.}) 9. b4
Bb6 10. a4 {White wins the bishop pair but the second player is not quite
afraid of this. At least for the moment.} a5 $5 {This is a central attack
against the d4 square!} ({The other way to play the position is} 10... a6 11.
Nxb6 cxb6 12. Bc4 Ne7) 11. Nxb6 cxb6 12. bxa5 $1 {It seems quite
counter-intuitive for Vachier- Lagrave to undouble the black pawns and to
spoil his own structure.} ({However, the natural} 12. Bd2 {will be answered by}
axb4 13. cxb4 Bg4 $1 {with the idea Nc6-d4} 14. Bc3 d5 $1 {with active play in
the center.} (14... Rc8 $5) 15. Bxc6 bxc6 16. Bxe5 dxe4 17. Bxf6 Qxf6 18. dxe4
Rfd8 19. Qb3 (19. Qe2 $6 Rd4 $1) 19... c5) 12... Nxa5 ({Or else Black is not
going to conduct the freeing central advance.} 12... bxa5 13. Bc4) 13. h3 {
[%csl Yg4][%cal Gh3g4] Diagram [#]} d5 $1 {Sooner or later Rustam has to play
this. It seems as the moment was right.} ({He could have also tried it after}
13... Re8 14. Re1 ({but in this line White can stop d5 for good with} 14. c4 {
next he can play for the f2-f4 advance.}) 14... Bc6 15. Qc2 d5 16. exd5 Qxd5)
14. exd5 Bxb5 $6 {Only this move is inaccuracy. Black could have equalized with
} (14... Nxd5 {True, in some of the lines the pawn on e5 is taken with a tempo,
but it seems as Black is doing OK everywhere} 15. Bxd7 (15. Bd2 f6) 15... Qxd7
16. c4 (16. Nxe5 Qf5 17. d4 Nxc3) 16... Nf6 17. Qe2 ({Not} 17. Nxe5 $2 Qd4) ({
Nor} 17. Bb2 e4 18. Bxf6 $6 exf3) 17... e4 18. dxe4 Qe6 {with full
compensation for the sacrificed pawn.}) 15. axb5 Qxd5 16. c4 Qe6 {This forces
matters.} (16... Qd6 $2 {loses the exchange:} 17. Ba3) ({But probably} 16...
Qd8 {intending to meet} 17. Bb2 {with} e4 {made sense. From d8 the queen can
be also moved to c7 to defend the e5 pawn.}) 17. Bb2 e4 18. Re1 Rad8 ({Nothing
changes} 18... Rfd8 19. Bxf6 Qxf6 20. Rxe4 Rxd3 21. Qxd3 Qxa1+ 22. Kh2 Qf6 23.
Rd4 {- see the line below.}) 19. Bxf6 Qxf6 20. Rxe4 {[%csl Ra1,Rd3][%cal Rd8d3,
Rf6a1] Diagram [#] It is quite obvious that Kasimdzhanov calculated the whole
line with the intention to regain the pawn now with Rd8xd3. Then when the
position appeared on the board, he backed up.} Nb3 $2 {Now Black will be a
clear pawn down.} ({The other evil seems more bearable:} 20... Rxd3 21. Qxd3
Qxa1+ 22. Kh2 Qf6 {The knight on a5 is excluded from the game and temporarily
White has an extra piece on the kingside. He can then start improving slowly
his position there.} 23. Rd4 ({Or also} 23. g3 $5 {(this might be actually
better)} Rd8 24. Qe3 {next White can prepare kingside attack with Kh2-g2,
Re4-f4 and Nf3-e5. The pawns can get rolling too.}) 23... Re8 24. g3 {Next,
like the line from above, White prepares the kingside attack with his extra
knight. But is this lethal for Black? It's hard to say, I would bet a 50-50
chance for survival and loss. Especially if Black can trade the queens with}
Qg6 $1 25. Qxg6 fxg6 {Now the knight gets the b3 square and every chance to
escape.} 26. Kg2 Kf7 ({Not yet} 26... Nb3 27. Rd6) 27. Nd2 g5 {and since the
knight on d2 has to take care of the one on a5 things should be more or less
OK for Black. In any case this would have given more chances for the defender.}
) 21. Ra3 Nc5 22. Re3 Ne6 23. Qa1 Qe7 ({The blockade is useless:} 23... Qxa1+
24. Rxa1 Nd4 25. Nxd4 Rxd4 26. Kf1 {and then Kf1-e2 will set free the white
rooks.}) 24. d4 Qf6 25. Re4 $6 ({Better was} 25. d5 Qxa1+ 26. Rxa1 Nc5 27. Rae1
{as Black does not have any hint of counterplay.} Rd7 28. g4 Rc8 $2 29. Re8+
Rxe8 30. Rxe8+ Kh7 31. Ne5) 25... Rd6 26. d5 Qxa1+ 27. Rxa1 Nc5 28. Re3 (28.
Re7 $5 Rd7 29. Rae1) 28... Rc8 29. Nd2 Rd7 30. Kf1 Kf8 {The last curious
moment of the game. Rustam managed to build a strong blockade in the center.
Therefore Maxime offered a knight swap:} 31. Ne4 {[%csl Yc5,Ge4] Diagram [#]}
Rdc7 {which was rejected.} (31... Nxe4 32. Rxe4 f5 33. Rf4 Rf7 {with the idea
Kf8-e7-d6-c5 would have put stronger resistance instead.}) 32. Nd6 Rd8 33. Rae1
g6 34. Re8+ Rxe8 35. Rxe8+ Kg7 36. Ke2 {The center decided the outcome of the
game. Vachier-Lagrave was brave enough to spoil his pawn structure and
Kasimdzhanov needed a bit more energy to keep the balance. Maxime
Vachier-Lagrave rules the tournament after the initial rounds.} 1-0

The complete report of the round can be found here.

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